Dangerous Gifts by Gaie Sebold

This is the second Babylon Steel novel and once again it’s a triumph. Seabold’s Madam of the Red Lantern & sword for hire Babylon is, as usual, mixed up in political intrigue she could do without and with her loyalties split between her people and the client. Still money talks and Babylon needs it, urgently.

Babylon manages to blend tough as nails warrior and deeply sensual and sexual woman without either making her less of the other. She’s a great example of being what you want to be and what’s right for you. I don’t normally give much thought to gender politics in books, but if you cast you main characters in a whore house it’s hard to ignore. Seabold got it right.

I love this series not just for that though, but for the intrigue, the action, the wonderful full entertaining characters, the sheer joy of it really. I settled down with this at Christmas and flew through it. Strongly recommended if you like the feel of Urban Fantasy but want something a little different.

Ash: A Secret History – Mary Gentle

Ash: A Secret History
By Mary Gentle
Pub: Gollancz
1113 pagesI began reading Ash, some time around 10 years ago, and I have at last finished it, after numerous on-again off-again attempts and slogging restarts. It’s not an easy book to keep momentum on, mainly due to the sheer size of the damned thing. Those 1113 pages are packed with tiny, tiny font. I’m not just making excuses here either; the American release saw the story split across four books, making it far more manageable.

So was it worth the time and effort?
I think so. 
Ash follows the story of the book’s titular lead, a female mercenary captain, plying her bloody trade across Europe in the last quarter of the 15th Century. She holds her mercenary company together through experience, ability, force of personality, and something a little special.
Ash hears voices in her head, that may be the Green Man, the Lord and his saints, or something more sinister. These voices advise her in battle, and lend her some of the mystique of Joan Of Arc.
Ash’s Europe is a time and a place both familiar from history yet altered from how we know it. The Visgoth Empire rules over Africa, a land trapped under a literal eternal darkness, where mechanical golems serve the lord-amir’s bidding. The King-Caliph in Carthage in bent on the conquest of Europe.
The book is split down into sixteen fairly hefty parts, each separated by documentation alleged to relate to the original manuscripts from which the main narrative was translated, and which also chronicles the wild goose chase of archaeological dig searching for evidence of the events descried. This framing device both adds its own twist to the story, and flags up the differences between Ash’s present and our past.
With its alternate history setting and a framing device of found documents and archaeological digs in the present the book balances itself flags up some of its historical quirks.
The story is written thick with detail, and it serves to really ground the reader in Ash’s surroundings, from rust speckled weapons, fleas, and the bloody, thumping violence of combat, to the tangled skein of political allegiances across the battlefields and bedrooms of Europe, the physical impracticality of armour, and the tenuous command of a mercenary force.
I found the detail one of the engaging factors, although some may find in cloying to be presented with so much information beyond the bounds of the story.
The characters feel absolutely real, from Ash herself, down to the camp followers; hell, even Ash’s horse, Godluc, seems well realised. While there is an overarching fantasy/alt history/sf bent to the storyline, it doesn’t overwhelm the more historically accurate elements, and in facts sits very comfortably amongst them.
Ash is up there as one of my favourite characters (or I’d have given up reading this years ago), and (if you’ve got the time) her story is well worth a read.

Review: Midnight Blue-Light Special by Seanan McGuire

Midnight Blue-Light Special
by Seanan McGuire
pub by DAW March 2013

Ok this one is a little early I know, but I couldn’t wait to read it and I certainly couldn’t wait three months to talk about it. Odd moment of wonderful synchronicity, the day before this arrived I was scouring my shelves (full of things I haven’t read yet) looking for something to read and thinking, I could do with something along the lines of ‘Discount Armageddon’. Next day the sequel pops through the door. I may have squeaked.

Anyway the book. It’s the second Verity Price novel but if you missed Discount Armageddon you could easily start here (then go back, because you’ll want to). It wouldn’t matter so much. Seanan produces exactly the sort of Urban Fantasy I love, a little humour, a lot of action, a touch of romance and this series delivers just as the Toby Daye books do, although the tone is a little more upbeat and fun.

Verity has been trained as a cryptozoologist from birth, a bit like a monster social worker and occasionally executioner, but she’s always wanted to dance. Now living on the East Coast away from her parents for a year (part of an agreement to let her choose her own path) she is torn between wanting to be her own person and the reputation and duty that comes with being a Price.

In her second outing, her year away is drawing to a close and the safety of every non human thing in her City is under threat from the monster hunters The Covenant. Unsure who she can trust and facing her toughest challenge yet, Verity has a choice between walking away from everything she knows or risking her life and giving up her dream.

I had my own dilemma with this one, read faster to know what happens, or read slowly to savour it. I am impatient so I went through it fast. It’s another superb offering from McGuire that perfectly hits its mark.

I’ve read a fair few of Seanan’s books now and they never let me down. A quick adventure, mixing warmth and fun with thrills and tension, characters that are easy to connect with (I particularly liked Istas with her bring on the mayhem and maiming attitude) and writing that carries you through everything smoothly delivering you to an exciting and satisfying conclusion.

A Long Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan

A Long Long Sleep
by Anna Sheehan
pub: Gollancz

Ok the blurb

‘Rosalinda Fitzroy had been asleep for 62 years when she was woken by a kiss.

Locked away in the chemically-induced slumber of a stasis tube in a forgotten sub-basement, sixteen-year-old Rose slept straight through the Dark Times that killed millions and utterly changed the world she knew. Now, her parents and her first love are long dead, and Rose – hailed upon her awakening as the long-lost heir to an interplanetary empire – is thrust alone into a future in which she is viewed as either a freak or a threat.

Desperate to put the past behind her and adapt to her new world, Rose finds herself drawn to the boy who kissed her awake, hoping that he can help her to start fresh. But when a deadly danger jeopardizes her fragile new existence, Rose must face the ghosts of her past with open eyes – or be left without any future at all.’

This all makes it sound terribly dramatic and there is a dramatic sub plot to the book, but for the most part it follows the same riffs as any other boarding school drama, be it fantasy, sci fi or st trillians. Ok technically Rose isn’t a boarder and there is the whole, might she die thing, but basically, she doesn’t fit in, she’s out of step with everything, trying to make sense of her life and has a crush on a boy. If you ignore the hovercars, the alien class mate who communicates by touch and the whole stasis thing, it’s nothing new. That’s not a complaint.

It’s very well done, with engaging characters, an appealing heroine and yes all those sci fi touches do make it a richer and more interesting setting than most novels of this type. There are some genuinely touching moments, it’s good fun, the pacing is pretty good and the world is absorbing. The Dark Times are an interesting device and not entirely out of keeping with the sort of problems the earth could well face in a pessimistic view of the future, giving a fairly solid history to the time Rose wakes up in. There is also the relationship with her parents and the careful handling of the readers knowledge and understanding of that, in line with Rose’s own.

All in all excellently done, an enjoyable and thought provoking read.

Rae Carson- Crown of Embers

Being sick is a wonderful thing.

I mean, well it isn’t, but when you’re lying in bed cuddling up to a bucket you do find that you have the opportunity to get some proper reading done. Those of you who remember me will know I am now in full time employment after graduating (yay!) and living in London (double yay!) so I’ll admit that I’ve been holding off on reading this book for two reasons.

1- When I read Rae Carson’s Girl of Fire and Thorns I stayed up all night and read it in one sitting. I slept the next day. (see previous review)

2- The only way I could get away with doing the above a second time for the second book in the series would be if I had a free weekend (which I don’t) or was on my deathbed with nothing else to do. (a-ha)

So yesterday I finally got around to reading  the second book in Rae Carson’s trilogy (released this year, published by Gollancz) and I started with stupidly high hopes, hopes so high that nothing could possibly meet up to my expectations.

But Rae Carson is an amazing writer, and her second novel in theFire and Thorns trilogy matches up incredibly with her first. Having become a young Widow and Queen, Elisa is growing increasingly frustrated with the politics of her new home; the people hail her as a hero- so long as taxes stay low, and the other members of her government dismiss her as a child and don’t trust her. The only people around her who she can trust are her two ladies-in-waiting, Mara and Ximena, her stepson Prince Rosario and the Commander of her Royal Guard, Hector.

Oh, Hector. I’ve loved you since the very first book.

Not only is Elisa’s Quorum/Government doing their best to ignore her, but they’re also trying to marry her off (again). The country is unsettled and Elisa has yet to prove herself as more than a war hero, so a husband will give her the ‘stability’ she needs. Enter the dashing Conde Tristan from the Southern Territories. He’s intelligent, brave, and seems a perfect match as long as you don’t take into account that Elisa doesn’t love him… but no one is as they appear to be, and his own secret is one that has to come out sooner or later.

Not only that, but it appears Elisa didn’t quite manage to totally defeat the Invierne people in the last book, and after a rather public demonstration that involves a lot of fire, her position is weakened further by their bid to kidnap her.

And as if that wasn’t enough for the seventeen year old Queen/Widow/Mother/War Hero to be dealing with, there have also been several attempts on her life, which means she has more enemies than even Hector suspected. It might be time to start choosing some unlikely allies and keeping old friends at a more wary distance.

Everything about this story is a step up from the first; The politics are more secretive, Elisa’s enemies are more mysterious and more numerous, and the romance is more mature, more slow burning. I had a moment of horror before I began reading, wondering if, as sequels can do, this book would disappoint me, but it’s everything I hoped for and more; the plot is a continuation of the same story, but there’s new elements being introduced too. Elisa still makes mistakes, she still trusts the wrong people and still does the wrong things, but by the time this book ends she’s found her footing a little more, and she’s still that brilliant blend of surly teenager and brave young hero that made us love her in Girl of Fire and Thorns.

And now I’ve realised that the Final installment, The Bitter Kingdom, won’t be released until next year. That can’t be true. My heart won’t take it…

The return of cyberpunk!

We welcome Colin F Barnes novelist & micro publisher to talk to us about the return of cyberpunk.

Is Cyberpunk Coming Back in Fashion?

When we look around at technology today, we see things predicted by science fiction and cyberpunk stories of a few decades ago. Back then, mostly during the late 80s and 90s when cyberpunk and the techno thriller were at their peak computers were becoming affordable and regular household items. The early Apple machines, Spectrums and Commodores brought computing to everyone; including the spotty teen in the basement.

Not only did that technological singularity change the world—or at least put in place the elements for change—it brought with it a new way of thinking; the connected world. Writers such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, amongst others, took the idea of the connected world and extrapolated forward to a futuristic world of hacking, cybercrime, and virtual reality worlds.

As we approached the late 90s and 2000s it started to wane a little, but another decade on and we’re seeing more technothriller/cyberpunk stories return—in the form of books, films and even TV shows. The reason for the slump, in my opinion, was that the things predicted weren’t quite there yet in reality, and regular SF such as Star Trek, Stargate, and Battlestar Galactica filled that desire of stretching out in the future.

Now, though, we are seeing the things predicted, and this is inspiring another kind of singularity; that of the connected world as something that is established, something that humanity has come to rely on. In many instances, social media is this new singularity. And with it comes a lot of problems, and thus opportunity of us writers to explore and extrapolate what this means.

In my novel, Artificial Evil, the world has suffered a great cataclysm and just one million survivors are left living in a dome city that is tightly controlled. Individuals are now one with the network, and are effectively nodes; this is kind of what is happening now, but on a much lower level. With out smart phones and always-on connections, as we move around and manipulate the virtual world, we are becoming nodes and routers of information and content. What would happen if that technology and that idea was integrated directly into the conscious mind?  How much of your free will would be give over to  the network? And what would that mean for the individual?

If you did lose some of your humanity, but gained the benefits of a wider network, are you still human? or another species altogether? This is partly what I explore in Artificial Evil. Our evolution might not be a biological one, but a technological one, and that, in my opinion, makes a riveting story.

________________________________

Colin F. Barnes is a writer of dark and daring fiction. He takes his influence from everyday life, and the weird happenings that go on in the shadowy locales of Essex in the UK. 

Growing up, Colin was always obsessed with story and often wrote short stories based on various dubious 80s and 90s TV shows. Despite taking a detour in school into the arts and graphic design, he always maintained his love of fiction and general geekery. Now, as a slightly weathered adult, Colin draws on his experiences to blend genres and create edgy, but entertaining stories. 

He is currently working on a Cyberpunk/Techno thriller serial ‘The Techxorcist.’ which combines elements of Sci-Fi, Thriller, and Horror. 

Like many writers, he has an insatiable appetite for reading, with his favourite authors being: Stephen King, William Gibson, Ray Bradbury, James Herbert, Albert Camus,  H.P Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith,  and a vast array of unknown authors who he has had the privilege of beta reading for.

Website: www.colinfbarnes.com
Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/ColinFBarnes

Quotes:

“Artificial Evil: Book 1 of The Techxorcist sees the revival of everything we used to love about cyber punk, repackaged with new twists in this tech thriller. This is a brilliant tale that combines fantastic characters, great tech and a little bit of good old fashioned possession” – Adele Wearing, Un:Bound

“The Techxorcist project piqued my interest for a couple of reasons. First, it is the brainchild of Colin F. Barnes whose work has, to date, always lived up to expectation. The second reason is the title; not only is it fun to say, but it also sets the tone for a grim cross-genre design.

Having had the pleasure of reading Articificial Evil: The Techxorcist Book 1, I can honestly say I was not disappointed. The quality of the writing, the originality of the ideas – they blend together to show Barnes’ work at his best. The passion behind the project comes through every description and in every brilliant character – once you meet Petal, you’ll understand.

Artificial Evil reads as multiple stories at the same time. On the surface a fantastic plot-arc following a post-apocalyptic virtual battle against an evil AI, the brilliance is in the layers of interpretation going on behind the scenes. There are elements of a dozen classic tales intricately woven into the characters, the concept, and the dialogue, and the combination creates a story that is so rich in meaning and allusion it’s impossible not to connect with this seemingly distant and unrecognizable world.

A story that opens the mind to possibilities, crazy ideas that somehow seem plausible, Texchorcist is an exploration of how much we’re willing to give up to be free, and how far we’re willing to go to keep that freedom.” – Krista Walsh, Raven’s Quill.

Review: The Techxorcist pt 0.5 – The Rebirth

The Techxorcist Pt 0.5 The Rebirth
by Colin F Barnes

More information here

The novellette that kicks off the Techxorcist series is available for free to download and I strongly recommend you take advantage of that.

This first installment sets the scene for the upcoming trilogy, but it’s also a tale in itself. Gerry Cardle runs the death lottery so when his numbers come up something is definitely awry. Having spent is whole life in the system Gerry is at a loss to know what’s gone wrong or what he can do about it. Desperate and afraid he falls in with a couple of hackers who offer a ‘kill or cure’ answer, well he’s dead anyway right?

Rebirth did a really fantastic job of getting the reader ready for the world they will be visiting in the series, having you rooting for Gerry and his companions and asking all the right questions for what’s coming next. A short but satisfying read that will leave you eager for the forthcoming trilogy.

Officially billed as a tech thriller, the Techxorcist series will also appeal to fans of 90′s cyber punk (like me), offering adventure, an element of old fashioned horror and plenty of post cataclysmic grimness and entertainment.

Review: Owl Stretching by K.A. Laity

Owl Stretching
by Kate Laity

My 140 character tweet review of this one was  ’Owl Stretching is wonderful, weird, lyrical and feels a bit like doing opium and playing space invaders with William Blake’

I can’t really usefully expand on that, but i’ll try. The tagline of the book is ‘Shamans vs Aliens’ and that’s about right, its also very much Ro’s journey to discover herself and mend bridges she had thought well and truly burnt.

In a world where nothing much grows any more and all the animals are gone there seems to be no hope against the aliens and the endless war Ro is a civil servant who’s best friend has been in a coma for ten years. When Simon miraculously awakes it sets a whole chain of events in motion for Ro, Simon and everyone who is prepared to follow them as they try and find a future.

Now the traditional disclaimer, I have far less time to read these days which is why I no longer accept review copies. Additionally I know far more writers than I did when I started out so its often the case that I am reviewing people I know and like and consider friends. Given that Kate also writes and edits for Fox Spirit it would be fair to point out a potential conflict of interest. Since my interest both as Un:Bound and as Fox Spirit remains the sharing and enjoying of great stories though I would refute that. I may not be 100% impartial, but who truly is and i’m so totally right.

Alt.Fiction 2013

After a fantastic Alt.fiction 2012 I was very much looking forward to continuing to run the event for two more years and seeing how we could draw a new audience to our fantastic genre fic family, or at least draw the audience that normally hides their fandom on their kindle.

Sadly there have been changes at my day job recently and I’m afraid my free time is going to be squeezed somewhat over the next year or so delivering the projects for work. As a result i’ve had to step down from Altfiction 2013. I will send on my thoughts and notes so far to WEM and hopefully the event next year will find a new lead and be a huge success.

Nottingham Writers Studio

I love Maxine’s writing and this looks great!

We still have a few places left on our Nottingham Writers’ Day coming up on Saturday 13 October with Maxine Linnell. Maxine is the author edgy YA novels Vintage and Closer, and will be sharing her secrets in an intensive one-day workshop on writing young adult fiction. She will help you kickstart your story, find a theme, address teen issues, adapt your use of language and voice, and avoid possible pitfalls, and will be providing individual feedback on your writing.

To book your place, contact Robin at admin@nottinghamwritersstudio.co.uk. Further details can be found on our Writers’ Day page.

The workshop fee is £50 for NWS members and concessions, and £75 full price, which includes the workshop, a buffet lunch, and a light dinner with the tutor and participants. The workshop runs from 10.30am to 4.30pm at the Writers’ Studio in Nottingham’s Lace Market, with dinner at 5pm.