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.

Favourite books of the year so far

As we’re halfway through 2019(!!!), it seems like a good place to take stock of the books read so far this year.

Books read: 35
audiobooks: 2 (really not getting on with audiobooks – too easily distracted)
kindle: 10 (includes NetGalley. DO NOT LOOK AT MY NETGALLEY BACKLOG)
Hard copy: 23 (yay for physical books)

I’ve read a lot of great books so far this year. In no particular order, here are my favourites.

Red Snow – Will Dean

TWO BODIES

One suicide. One cold-blooded murder. Are they connected? And who’s really pulling the strings in the small Swedish town of Gavrik?

TWO COINS

Black Grimberg liquorice coins cover the murdered man’s eyes. The hashtag #Ferryman starts to trend as local people stock up on ammunition.

TWO WEEKS

Tuva Moodyson, deaf reporter at the local paper, has a fortnight to investigate the deaths before she starts her new job in the south. A blizzard moves in. Residents, already terrified, feel increasingly cut-off. Tuva must go deep inside the Grimberg factory to stop the killer before she leaves town for good. But who’s to say the Ferryman will let her go?

Red Snow was one of the first books I read this year. A welcome return for investigative journalist Tuva Moodyson in the small town of Gavrik. A suicide, a murder and a family-owned liquorice factory. Just how are they connected? Deeply creepy.

The Lost Man – Jane Harper

Two brothers meet at the border of their vast cattle properties under the unrelenting sun of outback Queensland, in this stunning new standalone novel from New York Times bestseller Jane Harper

They are at the stockman’s grave, a landmark so old, no one can remember who is buried there. But today, the scant shadow it casts was the last hope for their middle brother, Cameron. The Bright family’s quiet existence is thrown into grief and anguish. Something had been troubling Cameron. Did he lose hope and walk to his death? Because if he didn’t, the isolation of the outback leaves few suspects…

The Lost Man is a lovely slow burn of a mystery, leaving you with the dust of the Outback under your nails. Jane Harper has a wonderful ability to evoke the essence of a place and here she really shows off that skill to magnificent effect. You really feel the atmosphere here, the dust-soaked landscape, the incessant sun, the constant knife-edge balance between life and death.

And the death here is one of those properly splendid whodunnits. A man is found next to a remote grave, a circle etched into the sand as he’s struggled to follow the meagre shade whilst slowly dying of exposure and thirst.

Why is he here? Why is a seasoned, experienced farmer, who knows the Outback like the back of his hand, miles from the safety of his car? What has brought him to this place with none of the essential survival equipment that everyone carries by default in this unforgiving environment?


Inborn – Thomas Enger

When the high school in the small Norwegian village of Fredheim becomes a murder scene, the finger is soon pointed at seventeen-year-old Even. As the investigation closes in, social media is ablaze with accusations, rumours and even threats, and Even finds himself the subject of an online trial as well as being in the dock… for murder? Even pores over his memories of the months leading up to the crime, and it becomes clear that more than one villager was acting suspiciously… and secrets are simmering beneath the calm surface of this close-knit community. As events from the past play tag with the present, he’s forced to question everything he thought he knew. Was the death of his father in a car crash a decade earlier really accidental? Has his relationship stirred up something that someone is prepared to kill to protect? It seems that there may be no one that Even can trust. But can we trust him? A taut, moving and chilling thriller, Inborn examines the very nature of evil, and asks the questions: How well do we really know our families? How well do we know ourselves?

Huge fan of Mr Enger’s books, and Inborn is no exception. Wonderful characters, perfectly balanced plotting deftly played out over the multiple timelines.


Call Me Star Girl – Louise Beech

Tonight is the night for secrets…

Pregnant Victoria Valbon was brutally murdered in an alley three weeks ago – and her killer hasn’t been caught.

Tonight is Stella McKeever’s final radio show. The theme is secrets. You tell her yours, and she’ll share some of hers.

Stella might tell you about Tom, a boyfriend who likes to play games, about the mother who abandoned her, now back after twelve years. She might tell you about the perfume bottle with the star-shaped stopper, or about her father …

What Stella really wants to know is more about the mysterious man calling the station … who says he knows who killed Victoria, and has proof.

Tonight is the night for secrets, and Stella wants to know everything…

I read a lot of crime books. Some are good, some are great. This one falls firmly into the latter category. Call Me Star Girl is tautly written, cunningly plotted and twistier than a curly wurly.

Louise Beech has crafted a beautifully dark little tale in Call Me Star Girl, with a creeping sense of menace that leaves you wondering if you locked the doors. You might want to go and check. You never know who might be lurking outside.

Easily a contender for crime book of the year.

The Raven Tower – Ann Leckie

For centuries, the kingdom of Iraden has been protected by the god known as the Raven. He watches over his territory from atop a tower in the powerful port of Vastai. His will is enacted through the Raven’s Lease, a human ruler chosen by the god himself. His magic is sustained via the blood sacrifice that every Lease must offer. And under the Raven’s watch, the city flourishes.

But the power of the Raven is weakening. A usurper has claimed the throne. The kingdom borders are tested by invaders who long for the prosperity that Vastai boasts. And they have made their own alliances with other gods.

It is into this unrest that the warrior Eolo–aide to Mawat, the true Lease–arrives. And in seeking to help Mawat reclaim his city, Eolo discovers that the Raven’s Tower holds a secret. Its foundations conceal a dark history that has been waiting to reveal itself…and to set in motion a chain of events that could destroy Iraden forever.

Very weird, very brilliant. Glorious worldbuilding. A story of gods and power and what people will do to gain the latter and the price they’re willing to pay to do so. But Ann Leckie does this with such a deft hand that you’re left marvelling at how it’s all constructed. The way she plays with character and language and structure reminded me not a little of the skilful hand of Claire North, and whilst they tell very different stories, they both show a similar joy at playing with expectations.

Lord of Secrets – Breanna Teintze

Magic is poison. Secrets are power. Death is . . . complicated.

Outlaw wizard Corcoran Gray has enough problems. He’s friendless, penniless and on the run from the tyrannical Mages’ Guild – and with the search for his imprisoned grandfather looking hopeless, his situation can’t get much worse.

So when a fugitive drops into his lap – literally – and gets them both arrested, it’s the last straw – until Gray realises that runaway slave Brix could be the key to his grandfather’s release. All he has to do is break out of prison, break into an ancient underground temple and avoid killing himself with his own magic in the process.

In theory, it’s simple enough. But as secrets unfold and loyalties shift, Gray discovers something with the power to change the nature of life and death itself.

Now Gray must find a way to protect the people he loves, but it could cost him everything, even his soul . . .

More wonderful fantasy here. A magic-related heist, some more brilliant wordbuilding, a nice magic system (though not for the magic wielders themselves). Great characters, Gray has a nice line in funny one-liners and the plot fairly rattles along. Definitely check this out.

The Furies – Katie Lowe

In 1998, a sixteen-year-old girl is found dead on school property, dressed in white and posed on a swing, with no known cause of death. The novel opens with this image, as related to us by the narrator, Violet, looking back on the night it happened from the present day, before returning to relate the series of events leading up to the girl’s murder.

After an accident involving her Dad and sister, Violet joins Elm Hollow Academy, a private girls school in a quiet coastal town, which has an unpleasant history as the site of famous 17th century witch trials. Violet quickly finds herself invited to become the fourth member of an advanced study group, alongside Robin, Grace, and Alex – led by their charismatic art teacher, Annabel.

While Annabel claims her classes aren’t related to ancient rites and rituals – warning the girls off the topic, describing it as little more than mythology – the girls start to believe that magic is real, and that they can harness it. But when the body of a former member of the society – Robin’s best friend, with whom Violet shares an uncanny resemblance – is found dead on campus nine months after she disappeared, Violet begins to wonder whether she can trust her friends, teachers, or even herself. 

More magic here, though of the witchy variety. A tightly-drawn portrait of a private girls school with secret societies and a mysterious teacher. Oh, and a murder. Though the murdered girl went missing months ago…

Splendidly creepy, The Furies is a book which will keep you up long past the witching hour trying to get to the bottom of what happened at Elm Hollow Academy.

Velocity Weapon – Megan E. O’Keefe

Sanda and Biran were siblings destined for greatness. Her: a dedicated soldier with the skills to save the universe. Him: a savvy politician with ambitions for changing the course of intergalactic war. 

However, on a routine maneuver, Sanda’s gunship gets blown out of the sky. Instead of finding herself in friendly hands, she awakens 230 years later upon an empty enemy smartship who calls himself Bero. The war is lost. The star system and everyone in it is dead. Ada Prime and its rival Icarion have wiped each other from the universe.

Now, separated by space and time, Sanda and Biran will find a way to put things right.

Smart, slick sci-fi with brilliant characters and a cracking plot, Velocity Weapon is everything I love about science fiction. The worldbuilding is superb, spanning hundreds of years of political shenanigans and a planetbusting doomsday weapon wouldn’t be amiss in an Iain M. Banks novel.

It’s hard to say too much about Velocity Weapon without spoiling the plot, and it’s really something you need to go into without knowing too much. Suffice it to say that if you like your space opera played out on the grandest, galaxy-spanning stage, with some brilliantly diverse characters and a whip-smart plot, then this book is for you.

Loved it. Ten sentient AIs out of ten. Hugely recommended.

The July Girls – Phoebe Locke

Every year, on the same night in July, a woman is taken from the streets of London; snatched by a killer who moves through the city like a ghost. 

Another strong contender for crime book of the year, The July Girls is just brilliant. A fabulous twist on the serial killer trope, brilliant characters and fantastic writing.

Trust me. Just read it.

The Gameshouse – Claire North

Everyone has heard of the Gameshouse. But few know all its secrets…

It is the place where fortunes can be made and lost through chess, backgammon – every game under the sun.

But those whom fortune favors 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 the scale of a continent.

Among those worthy of competing in the higher league, three unusually talented contestants play for the highest stakes of all…

Three interlocking short stories about the mysterious Gameshouse. Few know of it, fewer still are invited to play amongst the elite. From the opening in 17th century Venice where a young woman plays an unusual game of cards, to 1930s Thailand for a game of hide and seek across a whole country, to the epic, globe-trotting finale where the stakes are highest.

Originally three ebook novellas, The Gameshouse showcases Claire North’s prodigious writing talent. Dare you play the game?

The Neighbour – Fiona Cummins

FOR SALE: A lovely family home with good-sized garden and treehouse occupying a plot close to woodland. Perfect for kids, fitness enthusiasts, dog walkers . . .

And, it seems, the perfect hunting ground for a serial killer.

On a hot July day, Garrick and Olivia Lockwood and their two children move into 25 The Avenue looking for a fresh start. They arrive in the midst of a media frenzy: they’d heard about the local murders in the press, but Garrick was certain the killer would be caught and it would all be over in no time. Besides, they’d got the house at a steal and he was convinced he could flip it for a fortune.

The neighbours seemed to be the very picture of community spirit. But everyone has secrets, and the residents in The Avenue are no exception.

After six months on the case with no real leads, the most recent murder has turned DC Wildeve Stanton’s life upside down, and now she has her own motive for hunting down the killer – quickly.

Last on my list, but by no means least, Fiona Cummin’s superb The Neighbour. Delightfully creepy, another serial killer with a difference.

Told over the course of a few days over the long, hot, sticky summer of 2018, The Neighbour is wonderfully atmospheric, and not a little claustrophobic in places. The cast of neighbours on The Avenue are an intriguing bunch, and you’re never quite sure who to suspect, though you’ll end up questioning what you think about pretty much all of them along the way. I particularly liked DC Stanton, though Cummins does rather put her through the wringer in this one. I’d love to see more of her in future books.

Loved it from the first page to the last. Very highly recommended.

So, dear reader. There are my favourite books of the first half of 2019.

Have you read any of them? What have been your favourite books? I’d love to know!

The Gameshouse – Claire North

Everyone has heard of the Gameshouse. But few know all its secrets…

It is the place where fortunes can be made and lost through chess, backgammon – every game under the sun.
But those whom fortune favors 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 the scale of a continent.

Among those worthy of competing in the higher league, three unusually talented contestants play for the highest stakes of all…

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a huge fan of Claire North’s books, from the mind-bending 84K to the remarkable The Sudden Appearance of Hope. So it was with some excitement that I received a copy of The Gameshouse – originally published as three digital-only novellas The Serpent, The Thief, and The Master, now all three are collected together.

In the world of the Gameshouse, players come to make their fortunes through any and every game. The House itself can be anywhere, a door in London, New York, here today and gone tomorrow, for it exists out of time.

We start the tale with The Serpent, set in 17th century Venice, where a young woman is invited to play beyond the silver door into the higher league, a game of kings and pawns, where Thene the player moves her pieces around the city, real people with real stakes and very real consequences.

In The Thief we move to 1930s Thailand where we’re introduced to Remy Burke, who wakes up with a hangover having been tricked into a game of hide and seek. Except the field of play is Thailand, and the stakes are very high – twenty years of life if he wins, and the loss of his memories if he loses. And Remy is very hungover, very tall and very white. Not the ideal start to a game where you’ve got twenty minutes head start…

We finish up with The Master. Set in the present day, it ties the previous two stories together into a whole. Whereas the first game took place in a city, and the second in a country, the final game is truly global.

Just brilliant. Each game gets bigger in scope, with higher stakes, and each builds on the other, delivering a complex, layered narrative where little inconsequential things become vital pieces in the endgame. North’s writing is, as ever, just glorious to experience. She has a style which at times can take a little getting used to, but like all good things, worth the effort. The worldbuilding is phenomenal, and the world of the Gameshouse is fascinating and thought-provoking.

Hugely recommended.

The Gameshouse by Claire North is published by Orbit Books. Thanks as ever to Nazia Khatun for the review copy.