The Tethered Mage – Melissa Caruso


Published by Orbit Books, October 2017
Source: review copy
In the Raverran Empire, magic is scarce and those born with power are strictly controlled — taken as children and conscripted into the Falcon Army.
Zaira has lived her life on the streets to avoid this fate, hiding her mage-mark and thieving to survive. But hers is a rare and dangerous magic, one that threatens the entire empire.
Lady Amalia Cornaro was never meant to be a Falconer. Heiress and scholar, she was born into a treacherous world of political machinations. But fate has bound the heir and the mage.
War looms on the horizon. A single spark could turn their city into a pyre.

This was the one I had on my shelf, sadly neglected for entirely too long (its sequel, The Defiant Heir has also turned up) much to my chagrin. I took the opportunity to bump it to the top of the TBR pile and I’m very glad I did. Lady Amalia Camaro is a splendid character, matched only by her Falcon, Zaira. Plots within plots abound as she’s drawn into the political machinations of the empire. Splendid stuff indeed!

The Tethered Mage was one of the two books on the Gemmell Morningstar Award shortlist that I hadn’t read (the other being Anna Smith Spark’s The Court of Broken Knives, which given how brilliant the other four books on the list are, I really must pick up!).

It’s a fantastic fantasy setting, with some quietly splendid worldbuilding which lurks in the background of a brilliantly twisty political magical story. It’s got everything – a fiesty fire warlock and her bonded Falconer,  court scheming, snappy dialogue and a cracking plot.

Book 2 is already on my shelf, but not for long! Looking forward to delving back into the world of Raverra.

You can find Melissa Caruso on twitter @MelissCaru, or at her website melissacaruso.net.

Hunted – GX Todd

Published by Headline, May 2018
Source: review copy

The birds are flying. The birds are flocking. The birds know where to find her.
One man is driven by a Voice that isn’t his. It’s killing his sanity and wrestling with it over and over like a jackal with a bone. He has one goal.
To find the girl with a Voice like his own. She has no one to defend her now. The hunt is on.
But in an Inn by the sea, a boy with no tongue and no Voice gathers his warriors. Albus must find Lacey … before the Other does. And finish the work his sister, Ruby began.

Sequel to the utterly brilliant Defender (one of my books of the year for 2017) we now have Hunted.

And boy, what a hunt it is.  It’s going to be hard to talk about this book without spoiling anything, but trust me on this. If you read and loved Defender, you *need* to read this. Pick up a copy, set aside a day, stockpile the biscuits, take the phone off the hook and strap yourself in for the chase.

And if you’ve not read Defender (what’s wrong with you??), go pick up that too (along with extra biscuits), and brace yourself for some of the finest dystopian worldbuilding you’re likely to see this side of the apocalypse.

Hunted takes the beautifully realised world of Defender, with it’s panoply of fantastic (albeit unpleasant in some cases) characters and expands the mythos. Those voices grow louder, the dystopia grows even more widescreen cinematic in scope, and the ending? Holy moly.

You are not ready for that ending. It’s a proper Empire Strikes Back kind of moment. Bereft, yet with a glimmer of hope that some things might just come right in the end.

The tension ratchets throughout the book, but it’s a slow burn, taking its time to catch light, but when the fire starts to burn, you need to stand back. The plotting is intricately woven through multiple viewpoints, multiple strands and the characters, oh the characters we meet. They’re complex, layered, always fascinating, often frustrating, and sometimes infuriating, but so utterly believable, facing down challenge after challenge, and when you think they can’t possibly take any more…

You’re ready. Join the hunt. #HearTheVoices

Book three cannot come soon enough.

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

Adrift – Rob Boffard


Published by Orbit Books, June 2018
Source: review copy

In the far reaches of space, a group of tourists board a small vessel for what will be the trip of a lifetime – in more ways than one…
They are embarking on a tour around Sigma Station – a remote mining facility and luxury hotel with stunning views of the Horsehead Nebula.
During the course of the trip, a mysterious ship with devastating advanced technology attacks the Station. Their pilot’s quick evasive action means that the tour group escape with their lives – but as the dust settles, they realize they may be the only survivors…
Adrift in outer space, out of contact with civilization, and on a vastly under-equipped ship, these passengers are out of their depth. Their chances of getting home are close to none, and with the threat of another attack looming they must act soon – or risk perishing in the endless void of space.

Hot on the heels of his epic Outer Earth trilogy, Rob Boffard has delivered his new book, Adrift. A standalone this time, Adrift follows the (mis)fortunes of a group of tourists aboard the Red Panda, a small tour ship from Sigma Station, out by the Horsehead Nebula. Things, as you might expect, go awry fairly quickly as a mysterious ship appears and attacks the station, leaving the Red Panda adrift and alone in outer space.

Regular readers will be well aware by now that I rate Rob Boffard’s Outer Earth trilogy very highly indeed. They’re full-on, balls-to-the-wall action with every dial firmly cranked up to 11, with a cast of characters you come to care for over the course of the three books.

Adrift does have some (ok, lots of) absolutely stunning action set-pieces (and if there’s one thing Rob does well, it’s super-tense will-they-won’t-they action). It also has some great characters – I loved Volkova the hard drinking pilot who’ll do anything to protect her beloved ship, Lorinda who has more to her than meets the eye, and Corey the smart kid who manages to stay this side of annoying! The claustrophobic setting of the tiny, slightly rubbish tour ship which forces the characters to rub up against each other and let the sparks fly is nicely done too.

There are the occasional lulls in the action where the pace drops a bit, but you do need time to catch your breath before the tension is ratcheted up again. The plot is clever – first one thing, then another, with rugs being pulled out left right and centre before the dramatic and entirely satisfying finale.

Highly recommended.

You can find Rob on Twitter @RobBoffard, his website, and last but definitely not least, on his YouTube channel doing epic book raps, one minute book reviews and other fun stuff. Huge thanks to Nazia and the Orbit Books crew for the advance copy of the book (I’d already ordered my copy as soon as I knew it was coming out though!)

My Mother’s Secret – Sanjida Kay – an extract

Published by Corvus, 3rd May 2018

You can only hide for so long…
Lizzie Bradshaw. A student from the Lake District, forced to work away from home, who witnesses a terrible crime. But who will ultimately pay the price?
Emma Taylor. A mother, a wife, and a woman with a dangerous secret. Can she keep her beloved family safely together?
Stella Taylor. A disaffected teenager, determined to discover what her mother is hiding. But how far will she go to uncover the truth?
And one man, powerful, manipulative and cunning, who controls all their destinies.

Earlier this week Liz from Liz Loves Books tempted you with a peek at the prologue for Sanjida Kay’s new book, My Mother’s Secret. I’m here to whet your appetite further with a look at chapter one…

EMMA

It’s as if we’ve stepped into a Constable painting, a bucolic vision of England. There’s a single oak ahead of us in the heart of the valley; the grass is lime-green and the steep sides of the Cotswold escarpment are covered in dense woodland. Even though it’s May, the sky is shale-grey; there’s a brooding mass of clouds on the horizon.
‘We could have parked right there! Why did you make us walk all this way?’ Ava whines.
‘Because you’ll appreciate it even more,’ says Jack.
Stella snorts. ‘Yeah, like anyone but you is going to “appreciate” a mouldering old church.’
‘It’s so creepy. I don’t like it,’ Ava says.
I have to admit, the lowering sky and the dark green of the trees surrounding us make me feel a bit hemmed in.
‘I’ve been bitten!’ she shrieks and jumps about, slapping at her ankles.
‘I did see a horsefly back there,’ I say.
‘It’s probably nothing. Just a scratch,’ says Jack.
‘Let me have a look.’ I turn Ava’s slim calf in my hands.
Sure enough, there’s a large red lump starting to form above her ankle bone.
‘Don’t worry, I’ve got some ointment,’ I say, sliding my backpack off my shoulders.
Stella rolls her eyes.
‘Of course,’ says Jack, ‘your mum is prepared for anything. Break a leg, and she’ll wrap you in her space-blanket while we wait for mountain rescue on speed-dial.’
‘You’re kidding, right?’ says Stella. ‘A space-blanket.’
‘I do have a space-blanket, as it happens. You never know when you might need one . . .’ I rub antihistamine into Ava’s leg and she stops whimpering. ‘It’s so light, it would be stupid not to bring it.’ ‘I told you,’ says Jack.
‘Oh my God, you are insane.’
‘We could use it to fly to the moon,’ says Ava.
‘Jesus, Mum, the Taliban carry those things to stop the US spying on them with thermal cameras,’ says Stella.
‘Multi-purpose,’ murmurs my husband.
I finish putting away my first-aid kit. Ahead of us are a tiny stream and the remains of an old bridge.
‘Look! The people who once owned this place probably swept down here in their coach and horses, right over that bridge and up to the big house,’ I say brightly.
‘Like, that’s even interesting,’ says Stella.
There’s a sign saying the ruined bridge is unsafe. A round, stone ball lies to one side, as if it has tumbled from the crumbling turrets. It’s now half-obscured by long grass. There’s a cowpat next to it. We head to the right; buttery-coloured Cotswold stones poke through the soil.
I start singing ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’.
‘Spare me,’ mutters Jack under his breath, striding ahead of us. He’s smiling, though.
Ava joins in with the chorus, and we keep singing and she forgets to moan as the hill curves steeply upwards.
I don’t have my husband’s strength or resilience in the face of concerted opposition: I would never have managed to drag a fourteen-year-old and an eleven-year-old out of the house when they’d much rather be Snapchatting (Stella) or practising ballet (Ava). So I’m pleased Jack’s cheerily ignored any opposition to his plans, as he normally does, even if it means visiting yet another church. We haven’t been to see this one in a while, but sadly there’s no cafe nearby that the girls and I can escape to.
I’m out of breath. I really should lose some weight, I think, as I always do when Jack is marching us up some hill. He’s as fit as a flea. He goes to a posh gym in town and does kettlebells and something called HIIT in his lunch hour.
At the top, there’s a mansion that a family actually lives in, rather than opening it up to the public and allowing the whole world to traipse through the living room to raise money to repair the roof, plus a walled garden with stables and greenhouses that are also off-limits. The church is open but to reach it you have to walk round in a loop and double-back to give the owners a modicum of privacy. I get distracted by a lily pool and stop to take some photos on my phone. It’s surprisingly dark: there’s a thick hedge behind me, and beech trees overhead. I imagine this must have led to the main driveway for the house at one time. I lean over the fence, the metal cold against my stomach, and try and get a water lily to fill the frame in my camera. When I finally manage to take a halfway decent photo, I look up, ready to show Ava.
She’s gone. I can’t hear her or Stella and Jack, either. There’s the faint smell of horses and leather. It’s silent. It appears darker than before. The first spot of rain hits my cheek. I look round, but the narrow path is empty of walkers or my family.
I start jogging and call out, ‘Ava? Stella?’
I still can’t see them. The path grows narrower, the trees tower over me and it’s impossible to see over the hedge. Shrubs encroach. Something snaps across my face, stinging my cheek. I cry out. It’s a branch. I feel as if I’m in a tunnel. I run faster. A black shape explodes out of the bushes and I jump back. It’s a blackbird, disappearing into the wood in a flurry of feathers. I can’t breathe. There’s no sign of them, no sign that anyone else even passed this way.
I start screaming their names, over and over, the names of my family, my loved ones, the people I cannot live without. My heart is beating so hard it’s painful.
I must have missed the turn for the church, because now I’m on a wide driveway flanked by those giant beech trees, last year’s masts crunching beneath my feet, and the house is behind me, the windows shuttered against tourists. There’s still no one else around. No walkers. No one appears at the window. I can’t stop shouting; the silence will choke me. I feel as if my chest is in a giant vice that’s squeezing my ribs. I run to a fence and look down into the valley. There’s a girl on horseback a long way below me. She isn’t even aware that I’m up here, shouting for help. The path twists to the left, away from the fields, and disappears into a dark thicket of laurels. Is that where they are? I’m frozen. I don’t know where to search next, what to do.
And then Jack is running towards me. He puts one hand on my shoulder and looks straight into my eyes.
‘Take it easy. Deep breath. In. We’re all here. We’re safe. Breathe out.’
I see the girls peeking round a trellis draped with pink tea roses. Their faces are white. They’re fine, though, just as Jack said they were.
Once I’ve stopped hyperventilating, Jack folds me in his arms.
‘We were inside the church,’ he murmurs in my ear. ‘You know I’d never let anything happen to them, don’t you?’
I nod, and pull away. Ava comes and flings her arms around my waist.
‘Are you all right, Mum? I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have left you. I thought you saw . . .’
‘It’s okay,’ I say. ‘It’s my fault, not yours. I should have kept up.’

You can find Sanjida at her website, or on twitter @SanjidaKay

Fault Lines – Doug Johnstone

Published by Orenda Books, May 2018
Source: review copy
In a reimagined contemporary Edinburgh, in which a tectonic fault has opened up to produce a new volcano in the Firth of Forth, and where tremors are an everyday occurrence, volcanologist Surtsey makes a shocking discovery. On a clandestine trip to The Inch – the new volcanic island – to meet Tom, her lover and her boss, she finds his lifeless body. Surtsey’s life quickly spirals into a nightmare when someone makes contact – someone who claims to know what she’s done…

Fault Lines takes place in an alternate Edinburgh, where a new volcanic island, The Inch, has risen in the Firth of Forth. It’s an interesting premise and makes the setting feel distinctly unique.  The Inch looms large over the story as it unfolds and feels like an actual character in the book. And you all know how much I love a good location when it comes to books. Dare I suggest #VolcanicNoir? 🙂

It’s a short book, but packs a lot into its 200-odd pages. There’s the suspicious death of Tom, out on The Inch. It’s a classic whodunnit, with a small cast of characters in a relatively confined small-town location, but done so well. Surtsey is a brilliant character, flawed and genuine, not only dealing with the death of her boss and lover, but also her mum’s terminal cancer and her sister’s seeming indifference towards it. I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to see this developed for television and think it would work brilliantly on screen. Should we start the fantasy casting?

I polished this book off in a couple of sittings, and not just because of its relative slimness. It’s a gripping story which rumbles along at pace to a satisfying conclusion. I’ll definitely be adding Doug Johnstone to my list of authors to watch out for.

Highly recommended.

Fault Lines by Doug Johnstone is published by Orenda Books in May 2018.
Many thanks to Karen @OrendaBooks for the review copy and @AnneCater for inviting me onto the blog tour. Which continues tomorrow!

Nightfall Berlin – Jack Grimwood

Published by Michael Joseph, May 2018
Source: review copy
In 1986, news that East-West nuclear-arms negotiations are taking place lead many to believe the Cold War may finally be thawing.
For British intelligence officer Major Tom Fox, however, it is business as usual.
Ordered to arrange the smooth repatriation of a defector, Fox is smuggled into East Berlin. But it soon becomes clear that there is more to this than an old man wishing to return home to die – a fact cruelly confirmed when Fox’s mission is fatally compromised.
Trapped in East Berlin, hunted by an army of Stasi agents and wanted for murder by those on both sides of the Wall, Fox must somehow elude capture and get out alive.
But to do so he must discover who sabotaged his mission and why…

I was delighted to be asked to kick off the blog tour for Jack Grimwood’s Nightfall Berlin. It’s a superbly drawn, deftly plotted intelligent cold war thriller, following in the footsteps of the equally excellent Moskva, but could be read as a standalone (if you must!)

Major Tom Fox has been recalled from a holiday with his wife and son to escort a defector from East Berlin. What should have been a relatively easy-in, easy-out quickly spirals out of control, leaving Fox trying to avoid capture by the Stasi and solve a murder for which he is the prime suspect, on both sides of the Wall.

I do love a good Cold War spy thriller and Nightfall Berlin is a superb example of the genre. Less glitzy than Bond, more real than Bourne, it feels utterly authentic of the time and Fox is a complex, believable protagonist. A real sense of time and particularly place too, something which I really like in a book.

Grimwood ratchets up the tension with a relentlessly as Tom Fox finds himself in increasingly perilous straits as he navigates the back streets of East Berlin and beyond. I’ve long been a fan of his books and love his way with language, drawing us into the story, sketching out the political and cultural climate of the time.

Whilst Tom Fox is a great character, he’s just one of a host of layered, complex individuals, key of which is his son Charlie who has his own story to tell. There are one or two familiar faces along for the ride as well!

Highly recommended.

Nightfall Berlin by Jack Grimwood is published on 17th May 2018 by Michael Joseph. Many thanks to Sam Deacon for inviting me to take part in the tour.

Jack Grimwood, a.k.a Jon Courtenay Grimwood was born in Malta and christened in the upturned bell of a ship. He grew up in the Far East, Britain and Scandinavia. Apart from novels he writes for national newspapers including the Times, Telegraph, Independent and Guardian. Jon is two-time winner of the BSFA Award for Best Novel, with Felaheen, and End of the World Blues. His literary novel, The Last Banquet, as Jonathan Grimwood, was shortlisted for Le Prix Montesquieu 2015.

(On a side note, Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Arabesk books (Pashazade, Effendi and Felaheen) are bloody brilliant, and count amongst my favourites – I urge you to give them a try. Or if you prefer something a little more… vampiric and Venetian, The Fallen Blade is also superb. Enjoy!)

Gemmell Morningstar Award 2018

The shortlist for the Gemmell Morningstar Award for 2018 has been announced. The Morningstar Award is for the best debut fantasy fiction.

Now, I’m not usually one for reading award shortlists, but this year it turned out that I’d already read three of the five shortlisted, and had one on my shelf.

The shortlist:

  • Age of Assassins, Book 1 of The Wounded Kingdom by RJ Barker (Orbit)
  • The Tethered Mage, Book 1 of The Swords and Fire Trilogy by Melissa Caruso (Orbit)
  • Kings of the Wyld, Book 1 of The Band by Nicholas Eames (Orbit)
  • Blackwing, Book 1 of The Raven’s Mark by Ed McDonald (Gollancz)
  • The Court of Broken Knives, Book 1 of The Empires of Dust by Anna Smith-Spark (HarperVoyager)

It’s a very strong year!

First up is RJ Barker’s Age of Assassins.
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 his 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 kingdom.

Regular readers of this blog will know just how much I love this book (reviewed here, and featuring on my books of 2017 list). It’s got everything. Skulduggery, great characters, and more to the point interesting characters doing interesting (though often unpleasant) things that actually make you care about them, a tightly-crafted plot (involving the aforementioned skulduggery) and some quite gloriously gritty worldbuilding. It’s superb.

The Tethered Mage, by Melissa Caruso
In the Raverran Empire, magic is scarce and those born with power are strictly controlled — taken as children and conscripted into the Falcon Army.
Zaira has lived her life on the streets to avoid this fate, hiding her mage-mark and thieving to survive. But hers is a rare and dangerous magic, one that threatens the entire empire.
Lady Amalia Cornaro was never meant to be a Falconer. Heiress and scholar, she was born into a treacherous world of political machinations. But fate has bound the heir and the mage.
War looms on the horizon. A single spark could turn their city into a pyre.

This was the one I had on my shelf, sadly neglected for entirely too long (its sequel, The Defiant Heir has also turned up) much to my chagrin. I took the opportunity to bump it to the top of the TBR pile and I’m very glad I did. Lady Amalia Camaro is a splendid character, matched only by her Falcon, Zaira. Plots within plots abound as she’s drawn into the political machinations of the empire. Splendid stuff indeed!

Kings of the Wyld, by Nicholas Eames
Clay Cooper and his band were once the best of the best — the meanest, dirtiest, most feared crew of mercenaries this side of the Heartwyld.
Their glory days long past, the mercs have grown apart and grown old, fat, drunk – or a combination of the three. Then an ex-bandmate turns up at Clay’s door with a plea for help. His daughter Rose is trapped in a city besieged by an enemy one hundred thousand strong and hungry for blood. Rescuing Rose is the kind of mission that only the very brave or the very stupid would sign up for.
It’s time to get the band back together for one last tour across the Wyld.

Coming in closely behind RJ’s Age of Assassins on the infamous Books of 2017 list we find Kings of The Wyld (reviewed here).

Dear reader, I did what we are implored not to do. I judged it by its cover. More specifically, I judged it by its title (the cover is awesome), the ‘Wyld’ made me think of the terrible fantasy epics of my youth and Wyld Stallyns from Bill & Ted.

Oh how wrong I was. How very, very wrong. Kings of the Wyld is, quite simply enormous fun. Clay Cooper, determinedly helmetless member of the Watch, returns home to find his old mate Gabe with one last job: Let’s get the band back together and go on a quest to find his daughter on the other side of the world. It’s only a thousand miles through a monster-infested forest. Should be no problem.

What follows is a splendid rollercoaster of the most rollicking kind, with a grand smörgåsbord of beasts and monsters, evil villians, ex-girlfriends, former managers, relentless bounty hunters and what will soon become your favourite wizard since Gandalf (or Rincewind, depending on your literary tastes), Moog.

Kings of the Wyld has a simply delicious premise – what if the bands of adventures were treated as rockstars, with bookers sorting out gigs to clear out a horde of goblins, or dealing with an infestation of kobolds? Clay’s band really do get back together (one even wields an axe) and go on one final world tour with the action cranked firmly up to 11.

It’s an epic quest which simply rattles along, putting our ageing heroes with their sore backs and gammy knees through trials and tribulations one after the other until the grand finale. Superb entertainment.

Blackwing, by Ed McDonald
The republic faces annihilation, despite the vigilance of Galharrow’s Blackwings. When a raven tattoo rips itself from his arm to deliver a desperate message, Galharrow and a mysterious noblewoman must investigate a long dead sorcerer’s legacy. But there is a conspiracy within the citadel: traitors, flesh-eaters and the ghosts of the wastelands seek to destroy them, but if they cannot solve the ancient wizard’s paradox, the Deep Kings will walk the earth again, and all will be lost.
The war with the Eastern Empire ended in stalemate some eighty years ago, thanks to Nall’s ‘Engine’, a wizard-crafted weapon so powerful even the Deep Kings feared it. The strike of the Engine created the Misery – a wasteland full of ghosts and corrupted magic that now forms a No Mans Land along the frontier. But when Galharrow investigates a frontier fortress, he discovers complacency bordering on treason: then the walls are stormed, and the Engine fails to launch. Galharrow only escapes because of the preternatural magical power of the noblewoman he was supposed to be protecting. Together, they race to the capital to unmask the traitors and restore the republic’s defences. Far across the Misery a vast army is on the move, as the Empire prepares to call the republic’s bluff.

Another which I read fairly recently. Having seen Ed McDonald at Gollanczfest  I quickly snapped up a copy of Blackwing, but then things got in the way and it languished on my shelf (well, my Kindle) for months. The Misery is a superb invention, the Darlings are deeply creepy, and Galharrow is someone you definitely want on your side when the proverbial hits the fan.

And finally, the only one on the list that I’ve not read (yet): The Court of Broken Knives, by Anna Smith Spark
They’ve finally looked at the graveyard of our Empire with open eyes. They’re fools and madmen and like the art of war. And their children go hungry while we piss gold and jewels into the dust.
In the richest empire the world has ever known, the city of Sorlost has always stood, eternal and unconquered. But in a city of dreams governed by an imposturous Emperor, decadence has become the true ruler, and has blinded its inhabitants to their vulnerability. The empire is on the verge of invasion – and only one man can see it.
Haunted by dreams of the empire’s demise, Orhan Emmereth has decided to act. On his orders, a company of soldiers cross the desert to reach the city. Once they enter the Palace, they have one mission: kill the Emperor, then all those who remain. Only from ashes can a new empire be built.
The company is a group of good, ordinary soldiers, for whom this is a mission like any other. But the strange boy Marith who walks among them is no ordinary soldier. Marching on Sorlost, Marith thinks he is running away from the past which haunts him. But in the Golden City, his destiny awaits him – beautiful, bloody, and more terrible than anyone could have foreseen.

Looking forward to picking this one up soon.

Having read four of the five now, it was a very hard choice. I’ve put my vote in, and you can vote here.

Have you read any of the shortlist? Which one takes your fancy, which one gets your vote?