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.

Well now. At face value The Raven Tower checks all the regular classic fantasy boxes. A son returns home from afar to take up his father’s post as ruler, only to find that his position has already been filled by his scheming uncle. A kingdom under threat. Mysterious machinations at court. Gods making alliances with mortals.

You know, standard fantasy stuff.

But Ann Leckie takes those standards and twists and pulls them into something new, something different, something quite unique.

It took me a little while to settle into the style of The Raven Tower, as large parts of it are told by a mysterious other, who appears to be talking to Eolo, warrior aide to the true heir to the Raven’s Lease, Mawat. You are doing this, it says. You are thinking that. You go here and see things.

It takes a little getting used to. For this mysterious narrator (don’t worry, all does become clear but you know, spoilers) knows an awful lot about a lot of things, and appears to be almost relating the tale to Eolo from after the fact, pausing only to drift off into stories of what once was, setting the scene for present day tensions against the tapestry of long ago.

And there is a lot of this tapestry of history to read, making the scope of The Raven Tower utterly vast, from the dawn of this land up to present, all told through the eyes of this almost omniscient narrator. The characters are fascinating and well written – I was particularly interested in the power structures in play here, from the enigmatic Raven god, to its Lease and the assembled that made up the court.

So yes, it’s 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 skillful hand of Claire North, and whilst they tell very different stories, they both show a similar joy at playing with expectations.

It’s really hard to say more without spoiling the experience, and I can only urge you to discover the secrets of The Raven Tower for yourself.

Highly recommended.

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie is published by Orbit Books and is out now in hardback and ebook.

Huge thanks to Nazia Khatun and Orbit Books for the review copy.

Call Me Star Girl – Louise Beech

Call Me Star Girl by Louise Beech
Published by Orenda Books, April 2019
Source: review copy

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…

Welcome, dear listener. It’s five after midnight and have I got a tale for you to take us through the small hours. Are you sitting comfortably? Got your hot chocolate? You might want something a little stronger this time.

You see this is a story of love and loss, of secrets and lies, of families that once were and might have been. Of obsession. And murder.

Are you still with me, out there in the dark? It feels strange, sat here with just the glow of the mixing desk, talking into the ether. There’s no-one here but you and me. It’s almost like a confessional. A final show, our last chance to share.

So this is a story about a girl and her mother. And what happened when her mother disappeared. As all such stories go, the girl grew up and met a boy and fell in love. Stella and Tom forever and ever.

And then, twelve years later, Stella’s mother came back. And long-held secrets started coming to light. And the world changed. For everyone.

There’s another girl in this story, Victoria Valbon. Poor Victoria is brutally murdered not far from the station where Stella works. And one of Stella’s callers says that he knows who did it…

Secrets and lies. Twists and turns. Where will it all lead, dear listener? Dare you find out?

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.

Highly recommended.

Call Me Star Girl by Louise Beech is published by Orenda Books in April 2019. You can find Louise on twitter @LouiseWriter.

Deep Dirty Truth – Steph Broadribb

A price on her head, and just 48 hours to expose the truth, and save her family…

Single-mother bounty hunter Lori Anderson has finally got her family back together, but her new-found happiness is shattered when she’s snatched by the Miami Mob, who they want her dead. But rather than a bullet, they offer her a job: find the Mob’s ‘numbers man’ – Carlton North – who’s in protective custody after being forced to turn federal witness against them. If Lori succeeds, they’ll wipe the slate clean and the price on her head – and those of her family – will be removed. If she fails, they die.

With only 48 hours before North is due to appear in court, Lori sets across Florida, racing against the clock to find him, and save her family…

Deep Dirty Truth is the third book in Steph Broadribb’s Lori Anderson series. Now, I loved the first two books, Deep Down Dead and Deep Blue Trouble, so it was with some sense of anticipation that I started book 3.

Never really in any doubt. Steph has delivered yet another fantastic instalment in the ongoing adventures of Lori Anderson, bounty hunter. This time the stakes are higher, with Lori sent off on an almost impossible mission – recover mob “numbers man” Carlton North from the FBI. In 48 hours, before he testifies against his former employer. Oh, and his location is secret. And if she fails, JT and her daughter Dakota will be killed.

Nothing like a bit of motivation, eh?

The action comes thick and fast, on a rattly rollercoaster of an adventure, throwing us hither and yon and back again, hanging on by our fingernails. JT and Dakota get their own adventure on the sidelines, though the focus is firmly on Lori, kicking ass and taking names (then kicking ass again to make sure it’s well and truly kicked). She’s a brilliant character though I think Steph Broadribb rather enjoys putting her through the wringer. Just when you think there’s a moment to draw breath, we’re off again.

Steph proved in the first two books that she can do Americana so very well, and the same deft skill with place is on show here. Hugely entertaining, fast-paced adventure that will leave you wanting just one more chapter until you look up and it’s 1.30am and it’s finished and how on earth are you supposed to get to sleep now?

Highly recommended, though you need to read Deep Down Dead and Deep Blue Trouble first!

Deep Dirty Truth by Step Broadribb is published by Orenda Books and is out now.

You can find Steph Broadribb on twitter @crimethrillgirl.

Many thanks to @OrendaBooks and @AnneCater for organising the blog tour.

Steph Broadribb was born in Birmingham and grew up in Buckinghamshire. Most of her working life has been spent between the UK and USA. As her alter ego – Crime Thriller Girl – she indulges her love of all things crime fiction by blogging at crimethrillergirl.com, where she interviews authors and reviews the latest releases. She is also a member of the crime-themed girl band The Splice Girls. Steph is an alumni of the MA in Creative Writing (Crime Fiction) at City University London, and she trained as a bounty hunter in California, which inspired her Lori Anderson thrillers. She lives in Buckinghamshire surrounded by horses, cows and chickens. Her debut thriller, Deep Down Dead, was shortlisted for the Dead Good Reader Awards in two categories, and hit number one on the UK and AU kindle charts. My Little Eye, her first novel under her pseudonym Stephanie Marland was published by Trapeze Books in April 2018.

Books of the year 2018: science fiction

2018 is drawing to a close, and a bookblogger’s thoughts inevitably turn to the books that have made the biggest impact of the year.

I therefore give you my favourite ten science fiction books of 2018

In no particular order (don’t make me choose…), I give you:

84k, by Claire North (Orbit Books, May 2018)

Claire North’s books are always startlingly original, and 84K is no exception to that rule. She takes language and format and plays with them, twisting and shaping the very forms of lines and sentences, leaving you with such imagery that the words in and of themselves couldn’t provide, leaving you with the sense of a sculptor playing with marble, or plasticine, or both. It’s astonishing to see it happen in front of you on the page and wonder how on earth she made it work.

Adrift, by Rob Boffard (Orbit Books, June 2018)

Enormous fun. I’ve been a huge fan of Rob Boffard’s books since Tracer first landed on my doorstep, and Adrift does not disappoint. It’s a standalone adventure following the (mis)fortunes of a group of tourists aboard a tour ship out by the Horsehead Nebula. Things go awry, and no-one does awry better than Mr Boffard. Cracking read.

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells (TOR, May 2017)

All Systems Red won a *lot* of stuff (Hugo Award for Best Novella, Nebula Award for Best Novella, Alex Award, Locus Award, one of the Verge’s Best Books of 2017, as well as being a New York Times and USA Today Bestseller).

And it’s just utterly splendid. A somewhat depressed Company supplied SecUnit hacks its own governor unit so can pretty much do what it likes, calls itself Murderbot (long story) and has a soft spot for soap operas. Then some creatures start attacking Murderbot’s clients and it, somewhat reluctantly, is forced to do something about it.

I love Murderbot. The story might be short (well, it *is* a novella), but it’s fast and funny, and the plot fairly whistles along. It’s also a lovely character study, delving into the mind of a machine hybrid that’s not entirely sure who it is, or wants to be.

Everything About You, by Heather Child (Orbit Books, April 2018)

Everything About You is an unsettling, creepy techno-thriller which feels all too plausible. Echoes of Black Mirror abound as we follow the story of Freya and her new ‘Smartface’ virtual assistant. Technology has advanced to the point where you can have any personality installed you like, built up from the thousands of interactions that person had with others – emails, texts, voice. Except Freya has a new, bleeding-edge prototype and the voice of her missing sister, who vanished when they were teenagers.

I loved this book and rattled through it in a couple of sittings. It’s clever, it’s creepy and it’s just so damn smart. The mystery is neatly plotted and beautifully written, with plenty of twists and turns thrown in.

I also had the pleasure of attending a writing workshop with Heather at the Edge-Lit book festival in Derby over the summer.

Rosewater, by Tade Thompson (Orbit Books, SEptember 2018)

Stunningly good sci-fi. Rosewater is a community which grew up around an alien biodome, where people gather in the hope of its healing powers. But the healing doesn’t always take the form they might wish…

Deliciously weird biopunk with an avalanche of clever ideas and brilliant characters. Just read it.

Tade Thompson wrote a great guest post on the five ingredients that make up Rosewater as part of a mini-blog tour.

Void Black Shadow/Static Ruin, by Corey J. White (TOR, March/November 2018)

Books 2 and 3 of Corey J. White’s superb Voidwitch Saga. I adored Killing Gravity and was excited to see book 2, Void Black Shadow, turn up in March. Even more excited to discover that book 3, Static Ruin was out in November.

The action is bloody, brutal and relentless. Mars is brilliantly acerbic and pissed off with anyone who gets between her and her target, which turns out to be 90% of the people we meet in this book. So much blood. So much mayhem. So much fun.

The writing style is punchy and taut, with no time wasted. These books are short and to the point (often brutally so – did I mention all the blood?), and unlike some of their contemporaries, don’t wallow around waiting for stuff to happen. Gloriously refreshing

The Consuming Fire, by John Scalzi (Tor, October 2018)

Another sequel, following Scalzi’s glorious The Collapsing Empire, again this one snuck up on me and I had to zip down to the bookshop to get a copy immediately. I bloody loved book 1, and book 2 continues in the same vein – glorious worldbuilding, snarky characters, feuding Houses, the works. The Consuming Fire is clever, funny, and it’s like taking the essence of an Iain M. Banks book and boiling it down until you’ve stripped it down to the pure essence of an idea, making it 100% more witty, with a ton more diverse characters and 100% more sex. 

Warren Ellis described it as

…frictionless high-speed platinum-pulp science fiction storytelling.

which pretty much sums it up perfectly.

Vicious/Vengeful, by V.E. Schwab (Titan Books)

Last, but by no means least, these two books by V.E. Schwab consumed a couple of very late-into-the-night reading sessions. I realised that I’d had book 1, Vicious, on my kindle since FOREVER and finally found a spare evening to read it. A couple of days later I got an email asking if I wanted to read book 2, Vengeful, and I nearly bit the publicists hand off.

The format was challenging at first, with timeline jumps between ‘last night’, ‘ten years ago’, ‘ a week ago’ and so on, but once you settle into the style you start to appreciate the craft on display. The characters are great but awful, but also sympathetic (ish) and you can’t help rooting for them.

Vengeful continues the story, but introduces us to the utterly brilliant and merciless Marcella. It’s a hefty book at 600ish pages, but the chapters are short and punchy and I flew through it.

So, those are my sci-fi books of the year. Have you read any of them? Agree/disagree? I’d love to hear what you think!, Oc

Attend – West Camel

Attend, by West Camel
Published by Orenda Books
Source: Review copy, ebook

When Sam falls in love with Deptford thug Derek, and Anne’s best friend Kathleen takes her own life, they discover they are linked not just by a world of drugs and revenge; they also share the friendship of the uncanny and enigmatic Deborah.
Seamstress, sailor, story-teller and self-proclaimed centenarian immortal, Deborah slowly reveals to Anne and Sam her improbable, fantastical life, a history of hidden Deptford and ultimately the solution to their crises.

Well, now then. We are, dear reader, presented with somewhat of a conundrum when it comes to this book. A quandary, some might say.

Most books that I’ve read you could neatly slot into a category, or maybe two. Crime fiction. Check. Science fiction. Check. Crime fiction in space. Check.

Where to put Attend though?

Sometimes we’re too quick to attach labels, and those labels often mislead. It’s much like the sizing of my favourite t-shirts. One might say it’s a large, but be a little baggy, one an XL and yet be snug. When buying a new t-shirt, you never quite know what you’re going to get until you try it on.

And sometimes you get one which fits *just* right, despite what the label says. (I’m afraid there are going to be a lot of fabric-related analogies here folks).

Attend is just that.

It’s a book which doesn’t quite fit, yet fits perfectly.

It’s a wonderfully weird web of stories, deftly interwoven across time. It’s the story of Sam, a young gay man in Deptford. It’s the story of Derek, small-town gangster. It’s the story of Anne, middle-aged ex-junkie. Each thread of the story is held by the enigmatic, mysterious Deborah, always present, always overlooked.

The characters are all fascinating in their own way, but it’s Deborah who demands the most attention, despite all but disappearing in the real world. It feels that she’s embedded into the very fabric of Deptford, in a house that’s almost as invisible as she is.

I loved the way the story bounces from present-day back to Deborah’s younger days, unravelling her story one fold at a time. She’s a fascinating, unique character providing the warp threads to anchor the weft of the other three. She’s not the person they’re looking for, but she’s the person they all need in their own way. She fits *just* right.

West Camel has given us a gorgeous, multi-faceted novel, a book to curl up with and lose yourself in. One of those where you don’t know what to expect, but know that you don’t want to end.

Hugely recommended.

Attend by West Camel is published by Orenda Books. You can find West Camel on Twitter @west_camel. Huge thanks to Anne Cater and Karen Sullivan for the review copy. Kudos also to the hugely talented Mark Swan for another stunning cover.

Bait, Grist and Security – Mike Hodges

Today I’m delighted to take part in the blog tour for Mike Hodges’ Bait, Grist and Security, three darkly comic noir novellas from the cult director of Get Carter.

More on the book later, but first I’ve got an extract from chapter one of BAIT.

Summer is hell here.

Winter is the only time to be in this place. On a wet night preferably.

Like tonight.

The dark sea, flattened by rain, laps against the long curving beach. White-painted iron railings and ill-lit weather shelters recede into the mist. An amusement arcade, boarded up, sits like a blind man watching nothing.

The Grand Atlantic Hotel, a vast, corroding edifice, looms over the deserted esplanade. A torn canvas banner flaps over its darkened entrance, announcing the presence of the Brotherhood of Magicians Conference. Bedroom windows stacked up to the murky sky are black patches. The magicians are long in bed.
They’ll need steady hands in the morning. The clock tower strikes on the hour.

Twice.

An approaching motorbike cuts through the sound of rainwater smacking the tarmac. The red Yamaha rounds a corner slowly, ominously, powerful as a shark. A metallic titanium flip-front helmet glints under the street lamps. Moulded gloves with visor wipes, grinder boots, cowhide jeans and a leather jacket embossed with a bloody knife embedded in the rider’s back. The rider steers his machine along the esplanade before circling a traffic island housing the public urinals, all the while scanning the empty street.

A municipal shelter with a noticeboard advertising local events for wet winter nights stands beside the amusement arcade. It’s here the bike comes to rest. The rider leaves the engine running as he nervously pulls posters from a saddlebag.

He works fast, skilfully.

Soon the forthcoming amateur operatic production of Annie Get Your Gun is no longer forthcoming. But ‘The Personal Improvement Institute: A Course in Leadership Dynamics’ is. The etched face of a wild-eyed mountaineer intending to give a slide lecture the very next evening is replaced by the well-fed features of Dr Hermann P. Temple, who will show you the QUICK way to the TOP! during his impending weekend course on SUCCESS-POWER GETTING!

A similar fate is accorded ‘Pinkie and Barrie, the Comedy Duo’; ‘Diana Barnham playing Bach on the Clavichord’; and the providers of ‘Merrie England Banquets. Book now to avoid disappointment.’ All disappear within seconds to be replaced by five identical images of Dr Temple. A quintet of pointing forefingers, quiffs and eyes that would make a cobra back off.

*

A solitary light snaps on.

It’s on the third floor of an office block five minutes from the esplanade. The bare bulb backlights the gold lettering on the window: ‘Mark Miles Intercontinental’. Below that: ‘Creative Publicity and Personal Management’. On the bottom line: ‘MAKE your MARK with MILES. He’s WAY ahead.’

The block housing Mark Miles’ office is just that: a block. It has all the charm of a coal bunker. Built in the sixties, it’s an early example of how easily even smart people can be conned. Concrete is beautiful. Or so the architects decreed at the time.

Providence House, for that’s the block’s portentous name, takes on a gloomy appearance in the torrential rain. Mark Miles appears at the window, taking off his helmet, while simultaneously dropping the slatted blind. One side falls faster than the other, which doesn’t happen in movies, but almost always does in real life. Cursing, he tries to level it off, one-handed. Instead it becomes uncoupled and collapses on top of him. Mark Miles and his blind have one quality in common. Both spend their lives dangling.

Mark is sick of being a small fish in a small pond. His only remaining heroes are the sharks in the local aquarium. These massive glistening predators eye the awed visitors on the other side of the glass with contempt as they sweep majestically past in their eternal search for a way out. Like them, Mark wants to command respect. To this end, his pinball mind has been hyperactive since being approached by Dr Temple’s people to promote his weekend course. Leadership dynamics might just be the metamorphosis needed to take him to the top.

And quickly.

He switches on a battered desk lamp, puts it on the floor and kills the overhead. Mark has to be careful. The landlord suspects that, contrary to the terms of his lease, the office also doubles as his living quarters.
The landlord is right.
That’s why the chipped commode with ‘Hospital Property’ boldly stencilled on its lid, and smuggled in under cover of darkness from his late grandma’s council flat, is disguised with a potted palm. He lifts the palm and urinates into the china basin.

Slopping out has always been a complicated ritual. When he first moved into the building, the landlord – Fred Snipe, thin as a drainpipe
– was wont to ambush him on his early-morning run along the corridor to the communal lavatory. After several narrow escapes, Mark devised a strategy whereby he transferred the contents of the commode into a plastic first-aid box before embarking upon this essential mission.

Now, on their occasional encounters, Snipe’s nose twitches like a gerbil’s at the odour. His mouth opens but words refuse to emerge. He just can’t bring himself to ask what the container contains. Mark relishes these precious moments, smiling and patting the Red Cross on the box. ‘Preparation H, Fred. Works wonders.’ He sometimes varies the exchange: ‘Glycerine suppositories, Fred. Never fails to get you moving.’ Or, if he wants to make the landlord really blush, he adds, ‘Clinically proven to be effective against irritation and itching piles.’

These words always play on Snipe’s retreating figure.

Mark now eases out a crumpled futon and sleeping bag from under the defeated sofa, carefully avoiding any tangling with its bare springs. Rolling back and forth on the floor, he sheds his clothes and slips into the kapok envelope.

Light out.

*

In the street below Mark’s office, a black umbrella is opened from the shelter of a shop door. A man, short and paunchy, steps out, his suet- pudding face glistening in the rain. His name is William Snazell and he’s a private detective, a gumshoe. Dressed in a faded raincoat and shapeless trilby, he takes a final look at the darkened window before crossing the road. His shiny rubber galoshes shuffle through the sheet of rainwater.

~~~~~~

Bait, Grist & Security by Mike Hodges is published by Unbound on 29th November 2018. Many thanks to Anne Cater and Unbound for the review copy.

In ‘Bait’, a slippery PR man, Mark Miles, is unaware he’s being manipulated and dangled as bait by an investigative reporter until he’s swallowed by a sadistic mind-expanding cult from
America.
In ‘Grist’, the bestselling writer, Maxwell Grist, ruthlessly uses real people as fodder for his crime novels before finding himself living up to his name and becoming grist for his own
murder.
In ‘Security’, an American movie star, unhappy with the film he’s working on, refuses to leave his hotel for the studios, while in the corridor outside his luxury suite mayhem and murder take over.

All Systems Red – Martha Wells

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.
But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.
On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.
But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

Winner: 2018 Hugo Award for Best Novella
Winner: 2018 Nebula Award for Best Novella
Winner: 2018 Alex Award
Winner: 2018 Locus Award
One of the Verge’s Best Books of 2017
A New York Times and USA Today Bestseller

So, All Systems Red won a *lot* of stuff. And it’s just utterly splendid. A somewhat depressed Company supplied SecUnit hacks its own governor unit so can pretty much do what it likes, calls itself Murderbot (long story) and has a soft spot for soap operas. Then some creatures start attacking Murderbot’s clients and it, somewhat reluctantly, is forced to do something about it.

I love Murderbot. The story might be short (well, it *is* a novella), but it’s fast and funny, and the plot fairly whistles along. It’s also a lovely character study, delving into the mind of a machine hybrid that’s not entirely sure who it is, or wants to be.

You see, Murderbot doesn’t really like people. It just wants to be left alone to get on with watching the long-running Sanctuary Moon. I can empathise a lot with Murderbot.

All Systems Red is the first of four (at time of writing) in the Murderbot Diaries, and I’m greatly looking forward to following their adventures.

You can get All Systems Red here (affiliate link)

All Systems Red by Martha Wells is published by Tor. You can find Martha Wells on twitter @marthawells1 or on her website marthawells.com