Violet – SJI Holliday

Carrie’s best friend has an accident and can no longer make the round-the-world trip they’d planned together, so Carrie decides to go it alone.

Violet is also travelling alone, after splitting up with her boyfriend in Thailand. She is also desperate for a ticket on the Trans-Siberian Express, but there is nothing available.

When the two women meet in a Beijing Hotel, Carrie makes the impulsive decision to invite Violet to take her best friend’s place.

Thrown together in a strange country, and the cramped cabin of the train, the women soon form a bond. But as the journey continues, through Mongolia and into Russia, things start to unravel – because one of these women is not who she claims to be…

Carrie and Violet set off on a journey on the Trans-Siberian Express. Strangers one day, travelling (and drinking) companions the next. But are either of them who the other thinks they are?

Let’s see:

  • Unreliable narrator? Check.
  • Psychological mystery? Check.
  • Glorious setting? Check.
  • Mysterious, murderous shenanigans? Check.

Absolutely loved this one, and sped through it in a single sitting. SJI Holliday’s previous book, The Lingering showed that she’s a dab hand at the old psychological thriller, and Violet is no exception.

It’s one of those books where you just know something Really Very Bad is going to happen, and Holliday seems to revel in dangling that Very Bad thing juuust in front of your nose, so tantalisingly close so you can almost touch it, then BAM, out of left field the actual Very Very Bad Thing just takes you out and leaves you glaring at the page for a moment before diving back in.

You may never speak to a stranger on a train ever again.

Hugely enjoyable, and highly recommended.

And can we just take a moment to bask in the glory that is the cover of the book? Sterling work!

Violet, by SJI Holliday is published by Orenda Books in September 2019 in ebook, and November in paperback. Many thanks (as ever) to Karen @OrendaBooks for the review copy.

The Bone Ships – RJ Barker

Two nations at war. A prize beyond compare.

For generations, the Hundred Isles have built their ships from the bones of ancient dragons to fight an endless war.

The dragons disappeared, but the battles for supremacy persisted.

Now the first dragon in centuries has been spotted in far-off waters, and both sides see a chance to shift the balance of power in their favour. Because whoever catches it will win not only glory, but the war.

RJ Barker, author of the wonderful Wounded Kingdom trilogy is back. This time we’re taking to the high seas, ships made from the bones of giant sea dragons and a more than generous helping of adventure and hijinks.

Now, I must confess that I’ve not read many ship-based books. Barker clearly has, and his love of them just shines through every page. After a bit of a slow start where we’re introduced to the world and characters, the adventure really kicks in and it’s full speed ahead.

And what a world it is – shipwives and deckchilder, arkeesian sea monsters and ships made from their bones. Fleet ships and Black Ships of the dead. There’s an awful lot going on in the first quarter of this book in setting all of this up, and introducing us to our main characters – Joron Twiner, former ship’s captain, sorry, Shipwife of the Tide’s Child and Lucky Meas who takes his place (with some force) and molds Joron’s rag-tag crew into one worthy of the name.

I struggled a little with the opening of The Bone Ships, information-heavy as it is. But knowing Barker’s skill at weaving a cracking story I pressed on and was richly rewarded with a grand old adventure. As I said earlier, he has a clear love of this setting, and it really shows through. The world he’s created here is so utterly different from The Wounded Kingdom, yet just as rich with detail.

He’s also got a gift for character. Meas and Twiner are both brilliant, one the supremely confident, capable shipwife, the other initially a no-hoper who learns that he’s more than he thinks possible.

The Bone Ships is the first of The Tide Child trilogy, and I’m intrigued to see where RJ Barker takes us next.

The Bone Ships by RJ Barker is published by Orbit Books and is out in September 2019.
Many thanks to Nazia Khatun and Orbit Books for the advance copy to review.

The Rage of Dragons – Evan Winter

The Omehi people have been fighting an unwinnable fight for almost two hundred years. Their society has been built around war and only war. The lucky ones are born gifted. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons. One in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine.

Everyone else is fodder, destined to fight and die in the endless war. Young, gift-less Tau knows all this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured, get out early, and settle down to marriage, children, and land. Only, he doesn’t get the chance. Those closest to him are brutally murdered, and his grief swiftly turns to anger. Fixated on revenge, Tau dedicates himself to an unthinkable path. He’ll become the greatest swordsman to ever live, a man willing to die a hundred thousand times for the chance to kill the three who betrayed him. 

Fast, brutal, African-tinged epic fantasy featuring incredible swordfights, revenge, magic, demons and of course, dragons.

What’s not to like?

The Rage of Dragons is great, a big meaty chunk of a book that I devoured over the course of a few days. The setting feels very different from your regular run-of-the-mill swords and sorcery, but the elements are all there – a well thought out magic and caste system, a young man with a mission to avenge, and a rag-tag group of misfits to help him along the way.

It’s so good. The battle scenes are incredibly well written and you feel that you’re deep in the action, dodging blades. The political skulduggery is suitably devious. The training montages are exciting and brutal, and there’s a real sense of menace and danger from the demon-inhabited underworld.

Winter has a great group of characters – our main hero Tau is headstrong, determined and brave, but flawed. It was fun watching him grow and his character arc was particularly well drawn out. The supporting characters are also nicely done – Jayyed and his group of misfits, Zuri and her own training.

Billed as Game of Thrones meets Gladiator, The Rage of Dragons definitely has flavours of both, possibly more of the latter, but is most certainly its own concoction of epic fantasy.

You can read an excerpt from the book at Orbit’s website.

The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter is published by Orbit Books and is out now. Huge thanks to Nazia Khatun and Orbit for the advance copy of the book to review.

The Undoing of Arlo Knott – Heather Child

What if your life had an ‘undo’ button?

Arlo Knott develops the mysterious ability to reverse his last action. It makes him able to experience anything, to charm any woman and impress any friend. His is a life free of mistakes, a life without regret.

But second chances aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. As wonderful as his new life is, a mistake in Arlo’s traumatic childhood still haunts him and the temptation to undo, undo and keep undoing could be too much to resist.

A new book by Heather Child? I’m in. Loved her first book, Everything About You, a clever, creepy, smart thriller which you should definitely check out. I said at the time that I couldn’t want to see what she came up with next.

Well, here it is. The Undoing of Arlo Knott. I was planning on saving this for an upcoming holiday but just couldn’t resist taking a peek. A peek which turned into ‘just one chapter’. Which, somewhat inevitably, resulted in emerging from Arlo’s world some hours later, wondering at what I’d just experienced.

It’s an incredible concept – what if you could flip back in time a few moments to undo something you’ve said or done? What if you could keep trying, a second chance, a third?

We follow Arlo’s life (or fragments of life) from a traumatic event in his childhood which may have triggered his unusual ability, through various escapades and adventures. Chatting up a woman? Wind back when that line didn’t work. Betting on sports events? Easy money. His abilities are fantastic but do come with a darker side which leave you wincing at times.

I must confess that for chunks of this book I didn’t really like Arlo much, but Heather Child’s skilful writing and plotting draws you into his world and you won’t be able to put it down. She’s got a real gift for character, and Arlo, though flawed, is wonderfully different.

It’s love which drives the central core of the story – Arlo’s love for his mother, his sister, his girlfriend. But what would you do for love? How far would you go? Moral dilemmas abound!

If Everything About You was a confident debut, then The Undoing of Arlo Knott is an even more confident sophomore. And once again, I cannot wait to see what Heather Child comes up with next.

Hugely recommended.

The Undoing of Arlo Knott by Heather Child is published by Orbit Books in August 2019. Huge thanks to Nazia Khatun and Orbit Books for the review copy via NetGalley.

Heartstream – Tom Pollock

Cat is in love. Always the sensible one, she can’t believe that she’s actually dating, not to mention dating a star. But the fandom can’t know. They would eat her alive. And first at the buffet would definitely be her best friend, Evie.

Amy uses Heartstream, a social media app that allows others to feel your emotions. She broadcasted every moment of her mother’s degenerative illness, and her grief following her death. It’s the realest, rawest reality TV imaginable.

But on the day of Amy’s mother’s funeral, Amy finds a strange woman in her kitchen. She’s rigged herself and the house with explosives – and she’s been waiting to talk to Amy for a long time. Who is she? A crazed fan? What does she want? Amy and Cat are about to discover how far true obsession can go.

Heartstream is a dark look into fandom, fame and obsession. And boy does it get very dark. I’m a huge fan of Tom Pollock’s writing, and his ability to really put us into the heads of his characters is astonishing, and he does seem to enjoy putting them through the emotional wringer, cranking the tension up firmly to eleven from the off.

I bought Heartstream on the day of publication and finished it in a single sitting. Impossible to put down, the story is utterly absorbing and the characters beautifully drawn. You could easily see this as an episode of Black Mirror, with its near-future tech all too scarily plausible. The pack mentality of the internet, and the lengths people will go to from behind a keyboard is all too sharply displayed here, and at times makes for very uncomfortable reading.

Highly recommended.

Tom’s previous book, White Rabbit,Red Wolf is also well worth checking out, and his Skyscraper Throne trilogy is just superb.

I urge you to go read them all!

Heartstream by Tom Pollock is published by Walker YA.

The Possession – Michael Rutger

THEY CAME LOOKING FOR ANSWERS

A group of explorers arrive in the remote town of Birchlake, Northern California, to investigate the appearance of mysterious stone walls.

WHAT THEY FOUND WERE QUESTIONS

A teenage girl has disappeared without a trace.

FOR NOT EVERYONE IS AS THEY SEEM

Soon it becomes clear that the two events may be connected in the most terrifying way. Because sometimes the walls we build end up closing us in .

Here we go – the second instalment of The Anomaly Files and our old chums are back. Nolan and the crew are up in Northern California investigating some rather mysterious stone walls for their YouTube channel, whilst Nolan’s ex, Kristy looks into the story of a missing girl.

Except Nolan kind of sort of didn’t tell the Scooby Gang that she’s there…

I loved the first book, The Anomaly (one of my books of 2018). It was a lot of fun as Nolan and the crew investigated weird goings-on in a mysterious cavern where lots of things went very very wrong.

The Possession is a slightly different beast – spookier (ooh, witches), more unsettling (you’ll never look at a stone wall in quite the same way, especially in a wood) but the gang’s banter is still fun even as unpleasant things unfold.

Small town weirdness. Odd characters. Great plot that’ll keep you turning the pages (with the light firmly on). Amused to see that Michael Rutger has graduated from ‘for fans of Dan Brown‘ on the cover of The Anomaly, to ‘for fans of Stephen King‘ here.

I’m happy to say that I’m a huge fan of Michael Rutger (and his alter-ego, Michael Marshall Smith), and would happily take one of his books over either Mr Brown or Mr King any day.

Highly recommended.

The Possession by Michael Rutger is published by Zaffre in July 2019. Many thanks to the publisher for an advance copy of the book via NetGalley to review.

David Mogo Godhunter – Suyi Davies Okingbowa

LAGOS WILL NOT BE DESTROYED

The gods have fallen to earth in their thousands, and chaos reigns.

Though broken and leaderless, the city endures.

David Mogo, demigod and godhunter, has one task: capture two of the most powerful gods in the city and deliver them to the wizard gangster Lukmon Ajala.

No problem, right?

David Mogo, Godhunter is billed on the back cover as “A Nigerian Harry Dresden”. This only goes a little way towards what we’ve got here though – whilst there are definite echoes of the Chicago wizard private eye, David Mogo is very much his own man, and we definitely ain’t in Chicago…

What we have here is Nigerian Godpunk – a genre that I must confess I didn’t know existed until reading this book, but one that I hope to see more of in the future. At one level it’s classic urban fantasy, but with a distinctly unique edge.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s a fun read, set in a Lagos filled with fallen gods and godlings and wizards, peppered with interesting characters. The worldbuilding is great and the story whistles along at a great pace. I do love a good sense of place, and there’s plenty of that on show here. Okungbowa’s writing is punchy and sharp, with a rich vein of description which gives a great sense of place. There’s a fair bit of infodumping at points along the way, but it just adds to the atmosphere and the mythos.

One other thing I particularly enjoyed was Okungbowa’s use of language – David Mogo and Papa Udi’s conversations dialogue has a real, authentic feel to it, and though at times the dialect can be tricky to follow it’s all the stronger for it.

Finally, that cover! Oof. Huge kudos to Yoshi Yoshitani. Stunning.

David Mogo, Godhunter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa is published by Abaddon Books in July 2019. Many thanks to Tracy Fenton for inviting me to take part in the blog tour and the publisher for providing a copy of the book to review.

Suyi Davies Okungbowa is a Nigerian writer of science fiction, contemporary and dark fantasy, and crime fiction. His work has appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Podcastle, The Dark, Mothership Zeta, Omenana, Ozy, Brick Moon Fiction; amongst other magazines and anthologies. He is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona, and has worked in editorial at Podcastle and Sonora Review. He lives online on Facebook, tweets at @IAmSuyiDavies, and blogs at suyidavies. com.