Killing Gravity – Corey J. White

Mariam Xi can kill you with her mind. She escaped the MEPHISTO lab where she was raised as a psychic supersoldier, which left her with terrifying capabilities, a fierce sense of independence, a deficit of trust and an experimental pet named Seven. She’s spent her life on the run, but the boogeymen from her past are catching up with her. An encounter with a bounty hunter has left her hanging helpless in a dying spaceship, dependent on the mercy of strangers.

Penned in on all sides, Mariam chases rumors to find the one who sold her out. To discover the truth and defeat her pursuers, she’ll have to stare into the abyss and find the secrets of her past, her future, and her terrifying potential.

Killing Gravity is a kick-ass, whip-smart sci-fi short story/novella/novellette(?) which is a pure joy to read. It’s short, sharp and stunningly bloody, with a fiercely independent, void-damned spacewitch as the main protagonist. Echoes of Firefly abound, with a close-knit (albeit smaller) crew on a series of adventures as Mariam ‘Mars’ Xi goes on the hunt for vengeance. For such a short book, a *lot* gets crammed into the narrative.

The cast is refreshingly diverse and *interesting*, and it features what Warren Ellis described as ‘a cute space ferret of death’. Tell me you’re not intrigued!

It’s not perfect – for me it’s a little too short, and the action, whilst fantastically realised feels perhaps a tiny bit rushed. I’d have loved to see the story breathe a little more, giving us space to discover more about Squid, Mookie and Trix. That said, this is book 1 in the Voidwitch Saga (and it was only a couple of quid for the ebook), so I’m hopeful that we’ll get some meatier tales!

For those minor niggles (one of which boils down to GIVE ME MORE, DAMNIT), I’m greatly looking forward to reading more from Corey J. White.

Killing Gravity by Corey J. White was published May 9th 2017 by Tor.com. You can find Corey over at his website, coreyjwhite.com or on twitter @cjwhite

I picked this up from a recommendation in Warren Ellis’ excellent email newsletter, Orbital Operations. I’m a sucker for a good email newsletter, and Warren’s is a fine example of the art. You should subscribe. And go follow Morning, Computer while you’re at it.

Age of Assassins – RJ Barker

TO CATCH AN ASSASSIN, USE AN ASSASSIN…

Girton Club-foot, apprentice to the land’s best assassin, still has much to learn about the art of taking lives. But their latest mission tasks him and his master with a far more difficult challenge: to save a life. Someone, or many someones, is trying to kill the heir to the throne, and it is up to Girton and his master to uncover the traitor and prevent the prince’s murder.

In a kingdom on the brink of civil war and a castle thick with lies Girton finds friends he never expected, responsibilities he never wanted, and a conspiracy that could destroy an entire land.

Ah, Girton Club-Foot. A refreshingly different hero, in a splendid coming-of-age tale of assassins set to track down another assassin, with a dash of intrigue, magic, skulduggery and other shenanigans.

I’ll warn you now, this is one of those books that I’ll pester you mercilessly about reading until you finally gave in and read it[1]. You know the ones: Red Rising, Nevernight, Tracer or Kings of the Wyld. The awesome ones.

It’s got everything. Great characters, and more to the point interesting characters doing interesting things[3] that actually make you care about them, a tightly-crafted plot (involving the aforementioned skulduggery[4]) and some quite gloriously gritty worldbuilding.

I’ve read a lot of great books recently, but Age of Assassins shouldered its way in to stand firmly amongst them and will most definitely be on the illustrious[5] Books of 2017 list.

All the more impressive for being a debut – RJ Barker is a talented writer and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

I just hope that he’s writing quickly. Add this book to your list, kids. Or I’ll nag you until you do. You know it makes sense.

Age of Assassins is out in August and is published by Orbit.

Many thanks to Nazia at Orbit Books and RJ Barker for the chance to read an early review copy. You can find RJ over on twitter @dedbutdrmng. He won’t bite[6].

[1] Sorry[2]
[2] Not sorry in the slightest.
[3] and quite often unpleasant
[4] not forgetting the shenanigans. Who doesn’t love shenanigans?
[5] for a given value of ‘illustrious’
[6] probably. Unless you ask him *really* nicely

If We Were Villains – ML Rio

I’m delighted to be kicking off the blog tour for If We Were Villians, by M.L. Rio.

If We Were Villains tells the story of seven students in their final year at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, an exclusive arts school.  The friends find their world rocked by a tragedy one morning, and nothing is ever quite the same again.

Ten years later we meet Oliver Marks, one of the seven, freshly released from prison. He’s met by Detective Colborne, the man who put him away a decade earlier, a man who wants to finally get to the truth…

The story is told from two perspectives – it opens with Oliver and Detective Colborne walking back over the grounds of Dellecher Conservatory to the site of the fateful event, and flashbacks to that final year at school.

I loved If We Were Villains – despite some reservations about the subject matter (I was never particularly into Shakespeare) you can’t help but be drawn into the narrative as the players take the stage and the drama unfolds. The characters are deftly drawn and entirely believable, and their habit of quoting lines from Shakespeare, which I initially found a little distracting (but entirely in character), gives the story extra depth.

There’s an awful lot going on in the book – love, lust, jealousy, tragedy, intrigue, revenge (would you expect anything else from something so Shakespearean?) but the story artfully weaves them together into a web of truths and lies.

If We Were Villains delivered that rare treat of keeping me reading until the early hours of the morning. Definitely one of the ‘just one more chapter’ books! Highly recommended.

The blog tour continues tomorrow. If We Were Villians by M.L. Rio is published by @titanbooks and is out on June 13th. Many thanks to Philippa Ward at Titan Books for the advance copy.

Enter the players. There were seven of us then, seven bright young things with wide precious futures ahead of us. Until that year, we saw no further than the books in front of our faces.

On the day Oliver Marks is released from jail, the man who put him there is waiting at the door. Detective Colborne wants to know the truth, and after ten years, Oliver is finally ready to tell it.

Ten years ago: Oliver is one of seven young Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, a place of keen ambition and fierce competition. In this secluded world of firelight and leather-bound books, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingénue, extra. But in their fourth and final year, the balance of power begins to shift, good-natured rivalries turn ugly, and on opening night real violence invades the students’ world of make believe. In the morning, the fourth-years find themselves facing their very own tragedy, and their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, each other, and themselves that they are innocent.

Part coming-of-age story, part confession, If We Were Villains explores the magical and dangerous boundary between art and life. In this tale of loyalty and betrayal, madness and ecstasy, the players must choose what roles to play before the curtain falls.

 

Netherspace- Andrew Lane & Nigel Foster

Delighted to be part of the blog tour for Netherspace, a new collaboration project from Andrew Lane and Nigel Foster. Netherspace is start of a brand new science fiction series in which contact with aliens is only the beginning…

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Contact with alien species was made forty years ago, but communication turned out to be impossible. There is only trade in technology, which allows humans to colonise the stars, but at a heavy cost: alien netherspace drives are exchanged for live humans. When a group of colonists are captured by a group of Cancri aliens, a human mission is sent to negotiate their release. But how can you negotiate when you don’t know what your target wants?

I’ve got an extract from the novel for you today. Enjoy!

~~~

Marc Keislack stared at the spherical display unit. On the other side of the crystalline metal his nanoforms were mixing and interacting like miniature weather systems. Each one was a different colour, separated from one another by a gooey transparent nutrient medium.
Despite the seals around the tank – still necessary when anyone was mucking around with nanoforms – the slightly vinegary smell of the nutrient medium hung in the air of his studio. Light from the large windows at the far end of the room illuminated the space. Dust hung and glittered in the buttresses of light, despite the best attempts of his cleaning bots to eradicate it. Outside, the rolling Welsh hills were illuminated by a low sun. Cows stood in small groups in the field that bounded his property, and larks drew scrolling lines across the deep blue of the sky, while inside the studio he was waiting for his own life – his own artificial life – to decide what it wanted to be. He ran a hand through his long hair. It needed cutting, but he had been so wrapped up in constructing this latest piece of art that he had forgotten about it. He would need to get it cut before the show. His agent, Darla, would insist upon it. “Don’t believe the crap about artists in garrets forgetting to eat or wash and still being romantic,” she’d told him at his last show. “People who can afford your art expect short hair and an expensive cologne. And don’t fall on the vol-au-vents like you’re starving.” She’d paused at that point, then added: “Of course, if there’s an alien in town, wanting to pick up some art in exchange for some new kind of battery or something, then all bets are off.”
“I was followed around by an Eridani for three weeks, remember? It took five art installations, leaving behind something GalDiv took away for deep investigation.” He’d laughed bitterly. “Who knows why the damn aliens trade anything?” He didn’t say – it wasn’t necessary, there were plenty who’d say it for him – that it was the Eridani interest that had made the unknown Marc Keislack rich and famous.
Darla had smiled tightly. “Of course I remember, darling. And I would have gotten you a much better deal – even with an alien.” She didn’t say that being the alien’s darling – the Eridani and more recently the Cancri still traded for his and only his artwork, no other artists need apply – meant that Marc didn’t need an agent at all, only a lawyer and an accountant.
He’d smiled back more gently. “That I would like to have seen.” Keeping alive the polite fiction that Marc Keislack was as talented as any other successful artist and not just a lucky bastard.
Now he glanced around the studio, at the works that were going into the show, which his agent wanted to call simply Here. Across the far side of the room was a tank of seawater in which luminescent Aurelia aurita the size of coins drifted, coming together and apart in a thousand different shades of colour, as dictated by the artificial genes that he had spliced into their DNA. The jellyfish were effectively immortal, as far as he knew. As long as they floated in a nutrient-rich broth and had a little natural light they would just keep on going, moving and glowing, forming different pictures as they did so. Given the human mind’s amazing ability to see patterns in chaos, if you stared into the tank long enough you would start to see faces staring back at you: grimacing, laughing, screaming. Marc had given it the title All Human Life Is Here, and Darla had said that if he parted with it for less than a hundred and fifty thousand virtscrip she would part with him, violently.
His gaze skipped to another piece: this one an earlier, unsold work. It was a self-portrait entitled My Life Is Here. Artificially grown muscle, fat and skin tissue, generated from stem cells taken from Marc’s own bone marrow, had been carefully arranged over a brass skull on a stand inside a transparent case. The flesh had been crafted to mimic his own face, but initially aged a hundred and twenty. The cells had been programmed in such a way that they would gradually alter over time: the skin becoming firmer, the fat reduced and the muscles better defined. His face would get younger as he, the artist, grew older. It had already regressed to the age of 115, although it had to be said that there was very little difference visible between now and when it had started. There would be a day when the two of them – the artwork and the model – would cross, and one of the terms of the sale was that Marc would, on that day, sit inside a similar case next to it, wherever the purchaser was displaying it, making himself part of the work. Another one of the terms of sale was that when the face had developed to infancy the work would be destroyed – a stipulation backed up by automatic cell death programmed into the artwork’s genes. The aliens wouldn’t understand the fine print, of course, but he didn’t care. The art was the art.
“Wonderful,” Darla had said when he had told her about the idea. “A reversed Picture of Dorian Gray reproduced with technology.”
“The what? Who?”
She had glanced at him, frowning. “Never mind. Just keep coming up with ideas.” Marc had no interest in the past, only his own present and future.
A momentary eddy in the tank beside him caught his attention. At the border between the mass of blue nanoforms and the transparent nutrient medium they existed within, small vortices were forming. It looked like the kind of effect one saw at the edge of fractals, or coastlines on a map. The nanoforms themselves were artificial, of course, but based on genetic material harvested from slime moulds of Fuligo septica. Their behaviour was pre-programmed in their simplified DNA and based on a handful of simple rules. Were they surrounded by others of their own colour, or by those of another colour? Were they in an area where nutrients were plentiful or sparse? Were they on the outside of a mass, exposed to ambient light, or on the inside, in darkness? How old were they? The rules themselves were simple, but the outcomes would be anything but. In computer simulations the virtual nanoforms automatically came together in small groups, which acted as individual entities: moving as one, co-operating with others of their kind, absorbing others not of their kind and then producing smaller versions of themselves which grew over time. It was emergent behaviour, not pre-programmed, but it seemed to replicate many of the features of more complicated life forms, all without instinct or intelligence. This one was entitled All Life Is Here, and he was still waiting to see how it developed.

~~~

Netherspace is published by @TitanBooks, and is out now. The blog tour continues tomorrow at Sci-Fi Bulletin.

Tall Oaks – Chris Whitaker

Everyone has a secret in Tall Oaks . . .

When three-year-old Harry goes missing, the whole of America turns its attention to one small town. Everyone is eager to help. Everyone is a suspect.

Desperate mother Jess, whose grief is driving her to extreme measures.

Newcomer Jared, with an easy charm and a string of broken hearts in his wake.

Photographer Jerry, who’s determined to break away from his controlling mother once and for all.

And, investigating them all, a police chief with a hidden obsession of his own…

From time to time you might have heard me say that a book kept me up late, wanting just one more chapter.

Tall Oaks was one of those books.

Except in this case, I couldn’t stop at ‘just one more’. I couldn’t stop until it was done.

Twenty to three on a Sunday morning. That’s what time I finished Tall Oaks.

That’s how good it is.  The rest of this review is merely set dressing, just go and buy it already. It’s going to be in my top ten books of the year, I can tell you that now.

I’d heard chatter about Tall Oaks on twitter, mainly from Liz of Liz Loves Books. And Liz particularly loved this book, and wasn’t shy about saying so (is she ever?). I’d somehow managed to resist, citing an ever-growing, tottering TBR pile. But in a moment of lapsed attention, I found myself with a copy on my kindle. I settled in for a story of a small town and a missing child, thinking that I’d read stories like this before.

How wrong I was. Tall Oaks is a beautifully wrought tale of small town America, shot through with a deft line in wit and with what were to become some of my favourite characters in a book, ever. Manny and Abe, I’m looking at you.

The characters in Tall Oaks all have their story to tell, and what stories they are. There’s a real depth to these people, quirks, secrets and lies playing out over the days and weeks following the disappearance of three year-old Harry.

The sense of small town America seeps through the pages of this book and I was surprised to find out that Chris Whitaker is, in fact, British – born in London and living in Hertfordshire and yet has captured the feel of the town so brilliantly. What’s even more astonishing is that this is a debut novel – the writing, plotting and characterisation are confident and accomplished, and if this is just the start of Chris’s writing career, I cannot wait to see what he comes up with next.

Thankfully we won’t have too long to wait, as his new novel  All The Wicked Girls is out in the summer. My pre-order is already in.

You can find Chris on twitter @WhittyAuthor.

Defender – GX Todd

In a world where long drinks are in short supply, a stranger listens to the voice in his head telling him to buy a lemonade from the girl sitting on a dusty road.

The moment locks them together.

Here and now it’s dangerous to listen to your inner voice. Those who do, keep it quiet.

These voices have purpose.

And when Pilgrim meets Lacey, there is a reason. He just doesn’t know it yet.

Set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia where something… unusual has happened, Defender tells the story of a young girl called Lacey and a drifter, Pilgrim. The world has changed – the biggest threat to mankind is from the voices that have started appearing – voices which tell people to do bad, bad things. Suicide, murder or a descent into madness – you don’t get to choose, the voices do…

Defender is a thriller, of sorts. It’s also part horror, and you could argue there’s a dash of sci-fi in there too. It’s also startlingly original, blackly comic, bleakly desolate, with an utterly fantastic cast of characters, and a setting which just oozes menace. It’s one of those ‘just one more chapter’ books, which keeps you up until far too late.

It’s dark and brutal, and definitely not for the faint-hearted, but if you give it a chance, it’ll grab you by the hand and take you on a dust-soaked ride across the wilderness to some places you’ll not soon forget.

It’s a stunning debut, and I highly recommend it. Yes, it’s going to be one of those books that I pester you about until you give in and read it. You may as well just go and read it and save yourself the nagging.

I can’t wait to find out where book 2 will take us. I just know that it can’t get here soon enough.

You can find GX Todd on twitter @GemTodd. Many thanks to Headline for the review copy.

Movies of 2017: Nerve

A high school senior finds herself immersed in an online game of truth or dare, where her every move starts to become manipulated by an anonymous community of “watchers.”

Nerve (2016). Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, based on the novel by Jeanne Ryan and starring Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade. Featuring a cameo by everyone’s favourite vlogger, Casey Niestat.

A paltry 6.6 stars on IMDb, Nerve clocks in at a very healthy 1 hour 36 minutes long – which, as we all know, is nigh-on the perfect length for a movie at a shade under 100 minutes.

Venus “Vee” Delmonico is a high school student desperate to leave home, but ends up embroiled in ‘Nerve’, an online game where the Watchers dare the Players to do more and more dangerous things.

Nerve is a fast-paced, gloriously neon-soaked joyride through New York by night. Emma Roberts and Dave Franco have a definite chemistry and are fun to watch. It’s a thriller with a technological edge, but one which has a certain plausibility and feels like the writers actually know how social media works. People will say and do a lot of things hidden behind the anonymity of a phone screen, and people will do a lot more to become famous on the internet.

Great fun, even if it does falter slightly in the final act where a bit of moralising comes to play. It’s a minor niggle though, and worth going along for the ride. 96 minutes well spent.