Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Steelheart

I have to thank Gollancz for sending me this book, Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson (amazon, goodreads), to review.

This is the first time I’ve read Sanderson; I’ve had a library copy of ‘Final Empire’ sitting on my shelves for a few weeks after an online recommendation but hadn’t got around to reading it. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, sticking mainly to crime and science fiction, but have been reading more lately. I’d read the Prologue to Steelheart somewhere a while back and it had grabbed me from the off so when Gollancz were asking for reviewers, I added my name to the pot, was selected, and the book landed a couple of days ago. I’m also not great at reviewing, finding myself dragged into a story so much that I forget to look at it from the outside, from another’s perspective. So I’ve started this review before opening the book and will try to keep it going as I read. So, let’s get going.

Okay, the Prologue. It is an excellent introduction in that it sets out the world of the story and raises all the questions that it will likely go on to explore, all in a tense sixteen pages. After the appearance of some strange force in the skies, ordinary people have been transformed into superheroes, or people with superhero-like powers; they are called Epics. These people are using their powers to enslave the rest of the population. David, a boy of eight, sees one such Epic, Steelheart, kill his father. But he, alone, also sees that the Epic can be wounded although unaware of what circumstances combined to permit this wounding. The story quest is laid out for us: David must discover Steelheart’s weakness and defeat him. I didn’t remember all of the Prologue from my previous reading, but it was soon obvious to me why I had been so keen on getting the whole book.

The book proper starts ten years after the prologue. In all but a few isolated outposts, the (US) government has capitulated to the Epics. From the off we’re in the world of noirish fiction — everywhere is dark and the people are clothed in Prohibition-era styled clothing — only with added sci-fi, such as anti-gravity. (There’s more than a hint of the movie, Dark City, in this novel.) David’s first task in his vengeance quest is to join the one group out to take down the Epics: the Reckoners. He brings himself to their attention with some style. Of course, he then has to convince them to let him join. And this is where his ten years dedicated to studying the Epics pays off.

The story is well told and expertly written. The ‘voice’ of the novel, that of the narrator, David, an eighteen year old forced to grow up alone in a new and terrifying world order, is a convincing mix of naivety and painful experience. The tropes and character types, even the story arc, will be familiar to anyone who has read any comic that has built on the genre-switching base that was Watchman. That is no criticism. Steelheart may not be a game-changer but it fits its niche very well indeed.

I’ll stop the review-along here as any more will contain spoilers. I was unsure, half way through, whether I’d bother with the rest of this series. There was too much that was familiar from other story worlds, ones that hadn’t kept me interested. But I have to say that there are enough twists at the end to make me want to read the next book in the series. And Sanderson is a very good writer. How it gets to one of the twists is a little unbelievable but, hell, the story is good enough to hold the suspension of disbelief. This book is definitely one to pick up and stick with through to the end and I certainly recommend it to any lover of urban, dark or superhero fantasy or anyone who just loves a well-told tale.

Book review: London Boulevard

London Boulevard, Ken Bruen, 2001

I’d not come across Ken Bruen before being sent this book (& one by Dennis Lehane which I’ll get to in the next couple of weeks) by Lynsey Dallady of Transworld when she had a big give-away recently. On the strength of this, though, I will definitely be looking out for more of his books.

The first thing that hits you about this book is the voice of the narrator. It is like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels on speed. Mitchell is a hard man, a London villain who takes shit from nobody. He reads and quotes from crime authors, poets and popular films.

Mitchell is out after three years in prison and determined not to return but things have a way of happening to him. A mate picks him up, gives him somewhere to live and offers him work. The mate has taken up loan sharking and he wants Mitchell along on collections, as protection and persuasion. He agrees.

Later, on the way to his coming out celebration, he rescues a young woman from muggers, crippling one of them in the process. She puts him in the way of another job, as handyman to her aunt. The aunt is an old once-great actress who lives in a grand house with a dedicated butler. Mitchell takes the job and soon becomes the old woman’s favourite toy. Is the title starting to make sense now? But Mitchell is no Joe Gillis.

Finally, he comes to the attention of a psychopathic gang lord who wants him on his team.

Added to all this is Briony, Mitchell’s little sister. She is not often in the land of the sane, frequently exasperating Mitchell, but he loves her and does his best to smooth out life’s bumpy patches for her.

This is a brilliant, must-read novel for anyone who likes sharp dialogue and violent (but not too graphic) anti-heroes. A word of warning, though. Ignore anything you read about the film being made of this book. From what I can see, its only resemblance to the book is the title and character names. The characters and, especially, the plot are quite different. The comments for the film on IMDB are not promising. Do yourself a favour and get the book instead.

Book review: Sacrifice

Sacrifice, S J Bolton, 2008

This is the last of the novels I chose to read and review in The Great Transworld Crime Caper.

I was hooked on this book by the end of the first page. The narrator’s voice comes through clearly and she is someone you want to follow and listen to. Her story is good although it requires a fair suspension of belief, as do most thrillers. And I do think this is a thriller, rather than a crime novel.

Suspense is at the heart of the thriller. You need to believe that the principal or someone they hold dear is in danger of her life. That danger is exposed quickly in the story – slow starts are death to the thriller – and is then ratcheted up as the story continues. The obstacles pile up, no-one else believes in the threat, and the clock is ticking. Very few thrillers take the time for character development. More work is put into explaining the intricacies of the threat: the structure of terrorist cells, creating lethal viruses, the history of a particular pistol – all that geeky stuff.

Sacrifice can be read as a thriller. It has all the necessary ingredients. Tora Hamilton is a consultant gynaecologist, recently moved with her husband to his home island in the Shetlands. While trying to bury her favourite horse on land attached to their house, she uncovers a woman’s body. The woman had recently given birth, been tattooed with ancient runes and had then been killed by having her heart ripped out. The problems come as the police try to trace the woman.

Tora uses her knowledge and access to hospital databases to discover possible identities for the woman. In doing this, she uncovers birth and death trends on the islands that seem anomalous. Her husband, boss and the senior police officer working the case ridicule her idea of some sort of conspiracy, so she sets out to get more proof. She begins to suspect everyone of being involved, even her husband. She is alone and frightened.

All this is pure thriller writing. But S J Bolton is better than that. Her characters are more than mere ciphers. Tora is well rounded and the other characters, although not as well fleshed out, are believable. The plot is ludicrous but that, too, is standard for the thriller. In real life, conspiracies of more than a few people fall apart all by themselves. And in real life, any innocent person going up against serious villains will quickly be killed. But none of that matters. The plot is sensible within the context of the novel. The story is consistent and that is all we should ask of a thriller.

Tora is not the typical thriller hero, with martial arts skills and access to all types of weapon. She is vulnerable, frightened and largely powerless against the forces confronting her. She is a normal woman plunged into horrifying circumstances. This makes us identify with her and care about her.

S J Bolton has done an excellent job on Sacrifice. Grab it and prepare to lose a few hair raising hours.

Book review: Full Dark House

Full Dark House, Christopher Fowler, 2003

This is the second in ‘The Great Transworld Crime Caper!’ that I’ve been sent to review and the first in the series of Bryant and May mysteries. It has an unusual beginning in that one of the pair (Arthur Bryant) is blown up and killed in the first few pages. His partner, John May, then tries to find out why and by whom. This investigation leads back to the first case the pair worked on, a series of killings in a theatre during the London blitz of the second world war. The bulk of the book relates that case with the rest dealing with the current day investigation.

This is not an easy book to read. I found the writing clunky and off-putting. It switches between multiple points of view, often without a signal and with no link to the plot. The omniscient narrator sticks in his observations and opinions willy-nilly. Characters and the narrator spout chunks of theatrical lore with no justification of plot or motivation. Every now and then the narrator sticks in some observation about how one or the other of the pair spent the next sixty years doing the same thing as they were doing at that point in the plot. All these interventions are jarring. I found myself having to go off and do something else every dozen pages to get over the annoyance.

The primary characters are engaging. There is no shortage of such partnerships in crime story history: the eccentric and the prosaic detective have been paired off since Holmes and Watson. This novel presents enough background (and, weirdly, foreground) of the two that would make the reader look forward to more in the series.

The plot is also interesting. Theatres are always good places for weird goings-on and they do not come much weirder than this. We get ancient Greek myths mixed in with suspicions of Nazi infiltration, elaborate killings inside the theatre with bombings and displacement all around it. All this is entirely satisfying and could do without the modern day mystery.

The book is filled with the usual false leads and red herrings and is more or less tied up at the end. The resolution is as melodramatic as you could wish for from the preceding pages, and as unbelievable as you’d expect.

I would like to get hold of the next book in this series but will borrow it from the library: I’ll only want to buy future episodes in the series if the shortcomings in this one are absent.

Book review: The Surgeon

The Surgeon, Tess Gerritsen, 2001

This is a fast-paced and gripping serial killer novel. The book was written ten years ago, now, so it may be disingenuous to say that it offers little new to the genre, but if you are coming to the author or series anew then this is what to expect. It is written in what seems to be the standard for this type of novel: the story of the chase and the detectives hunting the killer interspersed with a running commentary from the killer. As I have said, the novel is fast-paced, and this is one of the drawbacks of the story: it is too fast to allow any real atmosphere to build. It is well crafted but not what I would call well written.

The three main characters are well described and we are allowed into their heads. They are engaging and the series character has enough flaws and interesting attributes to ensure that we will want to follow her into later stories. I will say that although this is the first in the Rizzoli and Isles series, only the former appears in this novel.

There are problems with the novel. The police fail to pick up on what I might have thought were some rather obvious leads that might have meant the killer being apprehended before the actual showdown. And the characters seem to react more strongly to the killer than the story warrants. The killer is much less superhuman than they make out. But, that said, these are minor concerns. The twists and turns in the story are inventive and surprising without being unbelievable; Gerritsen has plotted well.

So, if you are a fan of crime novels or of the serial killer sub-genre then I would certainly recommend this novel. It ticks all the right boxes and, being only the first in a series, suggests that better is to come.

Book review: Echoes from the Dead

As a partner-in-crime in ‘The Great Transworld Crime Caper!’, the first book I was sent to review was Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin. This was my first choice selection as I’ve been a fan of Scandinavian crime fiction since Hoeg’s Smilla. The book has the obligatory attempt to link the author to Stieg Larsson. No one should be fooled by this; Theorin is a much better writer than Larsson and this book is much better than the Millenium series.

First, a little on ‘translation’. I like reading translations. For me, the best translations will be good English and will convey the story as the author intended but will have just a hint of strangeness, something that also conveys a sense of the land and culture of the author.  The perfect examples are the Russian translations of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, such as Crime and Punishment, The Master and Margarita. Marlaine Delargy has taken the approach of providing a perfect English translation of Theorin’s Swedish, leaving it to him to provide the local feel. And this, Theorin provides in abundance.

The bulk of the story is set on the island of Öland, just off the mainland of Sweden and linked to it at Kalmar. And this place provides the story’s intellectual heart. The Öland of the novel is not wholly the real life one; place names have been altered, presumably to protect the innocent! But the landscape is real. In a series of appendices, Theorin describes it and his enduring passion for the island. The most significant aspect of the landscape is the ‘alvar‘ base, known also as a limestone pavement, whereby a thin layer of vegetation barely manages to survive on the limestone strata. This aspect also forms the symbolic base of the novel. Each character in the novel seems to be living their own thin existence, a veneer of life over some rocky base of horror from the past.

In the case of Julia and her father, this horror was the disappearance of Julia’s young son, some twenty years earlier. Most people feel that he wandered from his grandparents’ house and into the sea but Julia cannot accept that. She still talks to him and believes that he is waiting on the island for her to come and find him. This obsession and refusal to get on with life has led to her separation from the boy’s father and alienation from her father. But her father calls her back to the island. Someone has sent him a small shoe, one that the boy was wearing when he disappeared.

Julia and her father’s hunt for the truth about what happened exposes more and more secrets. Others are drawn into the search. As it continues, Julia begins to accept that her son is dead but she still wants to know how and why and where his body lies. The most serious complication to the search is the story of a misfit psychopath from a local wealthy family who escaped to South America after killing a policeman just after the second world war. Locals believed that he had returned and was responsible for all manner of crimes that had occurred since. Julia’s father is convinced that he had something to do with the boy’s disappearance. As the searching builds to its climax, both Julia and her father learn more about themselves and their neighbours and all the disparate strands of the novel come together in a believable conclusion.

Echoes from the Dead is no simple crime story. The characters are deep and complex and the resolution of the mystery at the heart of the novel depends on each character exposing the bedrock of their own existence. Theorin has crafted an atmospheric and gripping tale and I look forward to reading his later works. This book is highly recommended.

I’m an accessory in The Great Transworld Crime Caper!

While away, I signed up to Lynsey Dalladay’s ‘Great Transworld Crime Caper‘ and have just finished the first of my three books. I’ll post a review of it in the next day or so. Click the link above (before 14th Feb) if you’d also like to take part.

The Great Transworld Crime Caper