Birmingham Science Fiction Group

Reviews - Authors I-L

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A selection of reviews from our monthly newsletter. These are sorted by the author's or editor's last name. Click on the name at the top of the page to take you to the section or just scroll down the page.
Mia James
Ben Jeapes
Gwyneth Jones
Stephen Jones and David Sutton
Graham Joyce
Graham Joyce, James Lovegrove, Kim Newman and Michael Marshall Smith.
Stacia Kane
Guy Gavriel Kay
Pat Kelleher
Jasper Kent
Katharine Kerr and Kate Daniel
Daniel Keyes
Robert Kirkman & Jay Bonansinga
Margo Lanagan
Derek Landy
Keith Laumer
Ursula LeGuin
Fritz Leiber
Rebecca Levene
Roger Levy
Steve Lewis
Alison Littlewood
Jeff Long
James Lovegrove

Mia James

BY MIDNIGHT by Mia James

This is one of Gollancz’s Young Adult novels and the first of a supernatural series.
April Dunne is a sixteen-year-old uprooted from Edinburgh to a house opposite Highgate Cemetery because her father has a new job. She is sent to Ravenwood, a private school for high fliers. While most of the other sixth-form pupils seem either rich or geeky, she pals up with Caro who is, amongst other things, a conspiracy theorist, and Simon, Caro’s gay childhood friend.
While her father researches the Highgate vampire and April is becoming intrigued by Gabriel, a fellow pupil, two murders take place. One is of Alix Graves a pop star who lives nearby, the other April almost stumbles over on her way home. Then April’s father is murdered. Caro is convinced that the deaths are linked. She also becomes convinced that the school is being run by vampires.
Told from the perspective of a teenager, this is a fine portrayal of teenage angst, full of the usual arguments with parents, the on-off relationship with Gabriel, the urgings of her mother to make friends with Davina, daughter of one of the school’s richest patrons. Her loyalties are torn and she has not only her grief to contend with but also her mother’s decline. Then, just when she thinks things cannot get worse, she discovers that not only is Gabriel a vampire but she is a Fury. She can kill vampires – not with a stake but by kissing them. She is falling in love with a boy that she will kill if he kisses her.
Do these characters sound familiar? Imagine this as Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Highgate taking the place of Sunnydale. If you are a Buffy fan, you should enjoy this.
By the way, I forgot to mention the teacher who… never mind. Read the book and find out. Regardless of this, BY MIDNIGHT is a good example of teenage fiction that can also be appreciated by older readers.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Aug-2010 Published by Gollancz

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Ben Jeapes


Abingdon-based Ben Jeapes came to talk to the Brum Group in April
2003, and talked about his late lamented Big Engine small press. But he is also a popular YA (young adult) author of books such as THE
XENOCIDE MISSION (2002) and THE NEW WORLD ORDER (2004). Ben has now broken into the world of adult fiction – and an excellent debut it is too. Basically it is the story of two brothers (originally three but one, Felipe, makes an early departure – though he remains an important presence).
La Nueva Temporada is Earth’s first and so far only colony world.
It was chosen because it appeared to be earthlike – which it is, except that it proves to be in the grip of an Ice Age. Only a narrow strip of it is habitable by humans. It was reached by the only starship, Phoenicia powered by a ‘Matter Annihilation Drive’, and took forty years to make the trip, though the drive would only thrust for ten before shutting down, its crew and colonists in slow sleep. Yet Earth has a wormhole, through which people and objects can pass; but not objects as huge as Phoenicia. So the starship carried a wormhole terminus, which when opened allowed traffic back and forth daily. Since the bulk of the book depends upon it I don’t think I’m giving
too much away by saying that without warning the wormhole explodes, with disastrous results.
Most of the story centres around brother Alejandro – Alex – Mateo, and later his younger brother Joaquin –Quin. Their family is one of the leading – one might almost say ruling – classes on La Nueva Temporada, and they are hijos (‘hee-ho’s’) because they were the first to arrive on the planet. Alex wants only to stay and take an active part in the terraforming of his world until it begins to warm up
and humanity can expand across its surface. But the wormhole catastrophe puts an end to that, and he is forced to make the long, slow journey back to Earth in order to establish a new wormhole terminus. But when he gets there he finds that not everyone on Earth agrees with the plan to reopen it.
It is his much younger brother Quin, who hates La Nueva Temporada and everyone on it, who has to stay behind and watch his world collapse around him; only to become its ultimate saviour. Quin was
born just as the wormhole collapsed, so has never known his world as it was or should be. We learn about his life in a series of jumps, from a few years to decades, and his childhood and teen years are very well handled, shaping him as a future adult. So are the way that society and governments evolve on the two worlds; yet Jeapes doesn’t go into long passages of exposition or explanation, allowing the story to evolve at its own pace.
Likewise the science: we know that the wormholes take advantage of
quantum physics, but they have just become an accepted part of this future history. The story ends in a way that makes it clear there is plenty of room for a sequel. The characters are real and you care about them, and the worlds are believable too. This is one of the best hard SF novels I have read in a long time, and it is refreshing to find a ‘new’ author who can handle the subject so capably. In my book – and in his! – Jeapes is well able to join the ranks of Hamilton, Robinson and Reynolds. I look forward to his future output (no pun intended). Highly recommended.
As an artist I cannot resist a mention of the cover, which on the paperback is by Dominic Harman. For once it is a good old-fashioned
illustrative cover; indeed, those sharp, pointy mountains would be at home on a cover from the fifties! It shows signs of having been painted very quickly, yet it serves its purpose in attracting the eye. Which is what a cover is supposed to be all about, and other publishers would do well to remember this.

Reviewed by David A Hardy Mar-2015 Published by Solaris

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Gwyneth Jones

BAND OF GYPSYS by Gwyneth Jones

This is the fourth volume in the science fiction series following the leaders of the Counter-Cultural Revolution. After the collapse of the internet and the isolation of Britain by the rest of the world due to a virulent computer virus, the leaders of the Rock and Roll Reich emerged from the musicians at the Reading Festival. BOLD AS LOVE saw the rise of the Triumvirate – Ax Preston, Sage Pender and Fiorinda Slater. CASTLES MADE OF SAND (Book 2) saw Ax a hostage of drug dealers, Fiorinda held as a figurehead-of-state and a prisoner by her father, as Sage pursuing a higher Zen state. By the untangling at the end, the three had accepted their three-way sexual partnership. Abandoning the trauma of the events in Europe, MIDNIGHT LAMP saw them escaping to America.
Here, there is an attempt to harness psychic magic into a weapon. The result is the rendering of fossil fuels unusable as a power source At the start of BAND OF GYPSYS, the Triumvirate are found in Paris, but quickly return to Britain as the visible head of state. There are, however, conspiracies and political manoeuvring just out of sight. These people want the three of them on show, to keep the populace quiet, but contained.
The members of the Triumvirate are likeable characters and their problems are dealt with in a highly plausible way. This volume, however does not have the same zing as the previous three and it only really begins to wake up towards the end. Just as many second volumes of trilogies have the feeling of filling in between the setting up of the scenario in volume one, and the dénouement in volume three, this too, feels as if it is the linking volume before all hell is let loose in the next book. It is not bad, or badly written, it merely gives the impression of a stepping stone. There are more exciting things waiting on the other side of the river.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Aug-2005 Published by Gollancz

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Stephen Jones and David Sutton

DARK TERRORS 4 edited by Stephen Jones and David Sutton

This year's paperback is noticeably less horrific and more literary in tone. Not that this is a flaw; most of the stories are clever, highly original and very entertaining. Picking a favourite is difficult from such a glittering array, but I think that Poppy Z.Brite's "Entertaining Mr Orton" is going to stay with me the longest; it's a tour de force of gay sex, beautifully researched. Moving from sex to alcoholism, Joel Lane's "The Country of Glass" is one o f the best of his stories, a strong and emotional piece about a drinker's quest for his own holy grail, and set in Birmingham (particularly in Moseley). Ramsey Campbell is as good as ever in "Never to be Heard", in which a boys' choir give the first ever performance of a supposedly religious oratorio. David J.Schow provides an amazingly composite view of the Jack the Ripper murders in "The Incredible True Facts in the Case". Conrad Williams writes about ghosts and suicides in the underground system of a city slightly like London, while Michael Marshall Smith shows a frenetic view of New Orleans. If there is real horror here at all, it's to be found in "The Wedding Present" by Neil Gaiman (the present in question is just a description of the wedding and the marriage, but it changes) and in "Family History" by Stephen Baxter—yes, the SF writer, with his first horror tale

Reviewed by Chris Morgan Jan-2000 Published by Millennium

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DARK TERRORS 5 edited by Stephen Jones and David Sutton

This is a bumper-sized book - 500 pages and 31 new stories. There aren’t many horror anthologies in the UK (heck, there aren’t many anthologies), especially ones that present such a wealth of previously unpublished tales. For the horror fan, this series is invaluable. For someone on the outside, this volume is an ideal introduction to the horror field - to the literate horror field. I mean, this is feel the width and feel the quality territory. Meet the authors: Chaz Brenchley, Eric Brown, Ramsey Campbell, Graham Masterton, Kim Newman, Lisa Tuttle, Michael Marshall Smith, Brian Stableford, Peter Straub … and the others.
Campbell’s story is a bitter-sweet piece, about an author aspiring to past success in a world were publishers leave a sour emptiness, and where the final outcome is street poetry - o f a type. Newman writes scathingly of “victim” television, as I’ve heard it called: Big Brother. Big bollocks. Birmingham’s Joel Lane’s story remembers the carefree days of the university student - only they weren’t quite so happy in all cases, where one can be dry in an ocean of emotion and romance. In Nicholas Royle’s tale, we spy a ghost, miserable from its previous life, imbued with sadness and tragedy. And perhaps the longest story, more a novella by David Case, is a wonderful yarn of mad scientists and cannibalistic zombies, melded into a refreshing 50s-style science fiction. C’mon', you don’t expect me to comment on all 31 stories, do you?
The book also sports a classy illustration. The last thing the book looks like is a traditional slash 'n ’ dice horror fest. And of course it isn’t. It is a marvellous taste of top-notch horror fiction, an appetiser and main course in one volume (although I wouldn’t say “no” to Dark Terrors 6). This is a very large-format paperback and is cursed by cracking-spine syndrome, no matter how carefully you read it. If you can afford the seventeen pounds, buy the hardcover - you won’t be disappointed.

Reviewed by Peter Coleborn Dec-2000 Published by Gollancz

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Graham Joyce

INDIGO by Graham Joyce

As you would expect from Graham Joyce this is a riveting tale of suspense, with superbly drawn characters and a wonderful all-pervading sense of menace.
Jack Chambers’ father deserted his mother and himself when he was five. Now, as executor of his father’s will, he must make arrangements to publish a strange book on his father’s search for Indigo, the colour that doesn’t really exist. (Well have you seen it? Oh yeah, describe it, point to it…)
Jack’s beautiful half-sister Louise and a mysterious, but alluring woman in Rome who knew his father, both have their part to play in the puzzle. As Jack uncovers the secrets and lies that dominated his estranged father’s life, he realises that the revelations could put his own life in danger.
This is a superb novel, riveting from the first page. There’s a wonderful (very short) review that I read of this book which summed it up: "It opens your eyes not in the usual way of saying that I mean it actually makes you look at things in a new way, like the world has been rinsed for you ” (lta reader from Glasgow” on Yeah, that’s it - after you’ve read Indigo see if you can ever put a pair of sunglasses on again without thinking of it!
The only reason I give it four rather than five stars is that it suffers from Joyce’s usual problem - a weak ending. But please don’t let that put you off! This ending is weak only in comparison with the strength of the rest of the story!

Reviewed by Martin Tudor Mar-2000 Published by Michael Joseph

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Graham Joyce has always written on the edges of fantasy. His apparently straightforward style is accessible to readers of mainstream fiction as all the quirky bits can be passed off as psychological aberrations. Or can they?
Fern, the narrator, is a young woman living in rural Leicestershire in the 1960s. She has grown up in her adoptive mother's cottage, an old farm labourer's house which still has no gas, electricity or running water. The plumbing is a shed in the garden and a hand pump provides water. It could easily have been the setting for a tale in any rural part of the British Isles in the past five hundred years except that Fern owns a transistor radio and listens to pop music as she hangs out the washing.
Mammy is still a respected wise woman. Although the National Health Service is available, many of the local people call in Mammy to attend childbirth, visit for advice on unwanted pregnancies and to bake love into a wedding cake. Mammy has taught Fern some of her skills but there is a sense that she is holding some things back.
Fern, she says, is not ready. Fern is caught between the old ways and the new. She is aware that regulations will stop her continuing Mammy's line of work, but at the start of the novel, these things do not concern her. It is only when Mammy is taken into hospital that her problems start. Fern is forced to consider the idea that Mammy will not be around for ever. Then the estate they rent the cottage from demands all the arrears of rent and she is faced with eviction. She has no way of raising or earning the money. To add to her woes, her enemies attempt to have her sectioned as crazy so that she can be totally disposed of.
For the characters in THE LIMITS OF ENCHANTMENT, 1966 is a time of change and they are caught up within a greater change. Society, its structure, beliefs and expectations are in flux and the survivors are the ones that are prepared to compromise. Mammy, illiterate but knowledgeable about the old ways represents a past whose purpose has been replaced by the young, vibrant technological age. Science and legislation is not on her side. Fern is poised on a stepping stone in the middle of the fast flowing river of progress. A misstep and she could be swept away.
Once again, Graham Joyce has produced a book that will delight on a number of levels.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Mar-2005 Published by Gollancz

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THE SILENT LAND by Graham Joyce

The blurb on this describes it as ‘A chilling love story, a romantic supernatural tale’ and ‘…a brooding and tender look at love and whether it can survive the greatest challenge we will ever face.’, which would have the effect of making you think that this novel is just another soppy romance novel. But you’d be wrong, very wrong. The blurb writer on this got it wrong!
While there are two people in the novel who are married and in love, that’s as close as it gets.
The two people are Zoe and Jake, a married couple who are holidaying in the French Alps. Whilst out skiing they are caught in a major avalanche. Zoe is buried but soon finds herself being pulled out by Jake. Returning to their hotel they find it deserted. Where have all the people gone? They search the whole hotel but find no-one. They try to drive away from the hotel but find themselves back where they started.
As the days drag by, they remember their life together and this is where Joyce shows his maturity as a writer. Both characters begin to live as their history is fleshed out.
This is a novel well up to Graham Joyce’s usual high standard – in fact, I found it to be one of his most enjoyable. He has won Best Novel category several times in the British Fantasy Awards and I’m sure this will walk away with the prize this year. Superbly written with the outcome well obscured to keep you guessing to the last page. I do not wish to spoil this excellent novel by revealing any more of the plot but recommend it most highly.

Reviewed by Rog Peyton Feb-2011 Published by Gollancz

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Graham Joyce, James Lovegrove, Kim Newman and

Michael Marshall Smith.

FOURSIGHT by Graham Joyce, James Lovegrove, Kim Newman and Michael Marshall Smith.

Now this book didn’t even make it to the reviewing table. Nope. I snatched it out of the envelope and marked it down for mine, all mine. I buy any book I come across with a Michael Marshall Smith story in it, hence owning all four Dark Terrors books though I don’t like horror. This had the additional attraction of a Graham Joyce story. I hadn’t read James Lovegrove or Kim Newman before but I will now.
So here is dark fantasy with depth, flavour, humanity. Hurray. I wrote some time ago that I didn’t like dark fantasy but it seems I was wrong, I just didn’t like that particular novel, because I like this book very much indeed.
Graham Joyce’s story, 'Leningrad Nights’ is an ugly story told with great beauty. It’s the fight for survival of Leo, young and abandoned in the nazi’s nine hundred days siege of Leningrad. Surrounded by death and starvation, transported by his grandfather’s opium tea, Leo survives by sordid means and with the help o f a frozen grandfather, a whore and her baby and various parts o f himself. This is a very dark story indeed and yet, illuminated.
James Lovegrove’s 'How the Other Half Lives’ is very much a modern fairy tale with the princess in the tower replaced by a prince in the cellar.
The idea of power being bought by subjection and sacrifice of an innocent victim is not a new one but this has an up-to-date feel to it whilst retaining all the strength of the archetype.
Kim Newman’s ‘Andy Warhol’s Dracula’ is an alternative reality story where vampires are undeniably real. Johnny Pop is new into America from Romania. Finding his feet, making a place for himself, he is drawn into Andy Warhol’s circle. This is a fascinating story, so woven into ‘real life’ that I was hard pressed to know what was real, what invention. The idea of vampires selling their blood as a drug filled me with admiration.
A lovely decadent story.
Michael Marshall Smith’s ‘The Vaccinators’ tells of Eddie who looks back with longing for the days when he could cut a deal with Columbian kidnappers, make some easy money, save a life and know the deal would be honoured. The ‘people’ he’s dealing with now are much less reliable.
As always, Smith is witty and amusing whilst being at the same time clever and disturbing.
This is a book well worth buying, even in hardback. I very much look forward to Peter Crowther’s next volume of four SF novellas.

Reviewed by Yvonne Rowse Apr-2000 Published by Gollancz

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Stacia Kane

UNHOLY GHOSTS by Stacia Kane

This is the first book in the Downside Ghosts series and is set 27 years after the 1997 Haunted Week disaster in which the spirits/ghosts of the dead arose and slaughtered two thirds of humanity. Neither the established religions nor the governments were able to control the ghosts and so they fell. Mankind was rescued by a little known sect, ‘The Church of Real Truth’, which by the use of magic was able to banish the ghosts to the underground ‘City of the Dead’ also known as the ‘City of Eternity’. So confident is the Church of its ability of controlling the ghosts that it pays compensation to any household that becomes haunted. This, of course, provides an irresistible opportunity for fraud in an impoverished world. To counter this, a corps of ‘Debunkers’ are employed; if necessary they perform exorcisms.
Chess Putnam is a ‘Churchwitch’ employed as a Debunker. However, she is hiding a secret from the Church as she is a drug addict and owes the local drug lord, Bump, a lot of money. He wants the debt cleared and forces her to investigate the haunting of an old airport he wants to use and either identify the mundane cause of his problem or exorcise the ghosts.
Investigation reveals black magic, human sacrifice and puts both her personally and the Church in great danger. To complicate matters she starts to feel a strong attraction to Bump’s strong-arm enforcer and also becomes involved with one of Bump’s rival drug lords.
UNHOLY GHOSTS is extremely well written introducing the reader to a likeable if damaged heroine trying to survive in an impoverished and dangerous world. The support characters are well defined and the action is non-stop from start to finish, exciting but none of it gross or explicit.
This is a really enjoyable book and I look forward to reading the other books in the series, UNHOLY MAGIC and CITY OF GHOSTS which are to be published in July and August 2010 respectively.

Reviewed by Jim Pearce Jul-2010 Published by Voyager

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Guy Gavriel Kay


Kay introduced us to his fantasy alternative history in SAILING TO SARANTIUM and followed it up in LORD OF EMPERORS. This is a world that has the same geography as ours but has two moons (one of them blue). The history of the planet has followed a similar path with the Rhodian Empire being the equivalent of our Roman one. Sarantium is synonymous with Byzantium with all its splendour. These two books were magnificently conceived and written, portraying a divided empire heading towards its demise as seen through the eyes of a mosaicist.
THE LAST LIGHT OF THE SUN is set about four hundred years later in what we would have regarded as the Dark Ages. The setting is effectively Britain of that period, but here called Anglcyn. To the west lies Cyngael. To the north and east lie the lands of the Erlings, many of whom are blood-thirsty raiders. The country of Erlond to the west also gets a mention. The action begins in Cyngael when Ivarr Ragnarson leads a raid on the farmstead of Brynn ap Hywell, a ‘clan chief’ who killed his grandfather twenty five years previously. The attackers are driven off but not before one, Thorkel Einarson, is captured but who saves Brynn’s wife from Ivarr’s sneaky treachery. Thorkel had been on the raid with Ivarr’s grandfather that gained him the sword that Ivarr wanted to retrieve from Brynn. This sword is the focus of all the events in the novel and is directly and indirectly responsible for the fates of the principle characters.
Ivarr is a bit of a stereotypical villain. He is deformed, scheming, manipulative and thoroughly unprincipled. When the direct attack of Brynnfel fails he hires the Jormsvik mercenaries (including Thorkel’s son Bern), to attack Aeldred’s lands, telling them it will be easy as Aeldred will not be at home and Esferth can be easily looted. He knows they will fail, but his plan is to force them to sail further west and attack Brynnfel, as the Erlings would not be able to honourably return home after a resounding defeat. Fortunately, not everything goes his way.
Kay is a brilliant story-teller but this is not up to his usual standard. It could have done with some careful editing. Facts about the characters and their backgrounds are repeated too often, often close together suggesting that he has not been given the time to check through the narrative and cut out the extraneous information. In places, incidental characters are introduced because in real life they would be there. Surely it is not necessary to give an account of how a chance encounter affected the rest of their lives? Kay has missed the opportunity to invoke the magic and the differences of his world to make this more than just another Dark Ages fantasy novel.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Aug-2005 Published by Pocket

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UNDER HEAVEN by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay is a man who likes to play with history. His novel SAILING TO SARANTIUM was an alternative world narrative based on the Late Roman Empire; UNDER HEAVEN travels east down the Silk Road to the China of the Tang Dynasty.
This was a highly civilised and mannered society. Everyone knew their place and to rise in society it was necessary to pass examinations. Not only was it necessary for even the humblest to be able to read and write but it was also important to know history and to write poetry
One young man, Shen Tai, is prevented from taking his exams by the death of his father, General Shen Gao. According to custom, the family is expected to withdraw from society for a period of two and a half years. The only exceptions are for those with military rank. Tai decides to spend his period of mourning on the plains of Kuala Nor, the site of fierce battles between his people, the Kitai, and the Tagur. He spends two years alone, burying the bones of the dead.
Lives can change on a whim. When the Kitan princess, who was sent to Tagur as a peace bride, hears of Tai’s efforts, she gifts him with two hundred and fifty Sardian horses. These are the most sought after horses in the whole of Kitai making Tai immediately the target for assassins. Unfortunately, an assassin is already on the way, sent by Wen Zhou, the new first minister, but for an entirely different reason. Tai has to negotiate through the minefield of manners and political intrigue. A casual gift has already changed his life; it could change the fate of his nation as well.
This is a book that starts with a strong image and unfolds in a mannered way. It is never short of interest, the life in ancient China being painted with deft strokes and the beauty of fine poetry.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Sep-2010 Published by Gollancz

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Pat Kelleher


These books are volumes 1 & 2 in a series.
They cover the translocation of the 13th Battalion of the Pennine Fusiliers from the hell of the Somme to an unknown world and their adventures there.
When they arrive they discover that this land is occupied by a hostile anthropoid race, the ‘Chatts’, as well as conveniently English speaking humans, the ‘Urmen’. Under attack from the start by inimical animals and vegetation, the Broughtonthwaite Pals, as they are known, have swapped one hell for another.
With many good characters the story focuses on Private Thomas ‘Only’ Atkins who could be said to be the book’s hero; Lieutenant Gilbert W Jefferies, the black magic weaving villain and 2nd Lieutenant J C Everson. In addition there are many supporting characters these include the crew of a tank (which is the ‘ironclad’ in the second book), the pilot of a Sopwith plane, two nurses and their FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) driver.
There is throughout a high death toll with many dying in each book, several in gruesome ways.
In developing his tale the author clearly takes inspiration from two actual First World War events. The first being the creation on June 1st 1916 of the Lochnagar crater on Hawthorne Ridge in the area to be assaulted by the 10th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment (The Grimsby Pals).
The second of these being the disappearance in the Sulva Bay area of Gallipoli by the Sandringham Company of the 5th Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment on the 13th August 1915.
He also suggests in his acknowledgements section that the adventures of the ‘Pals’ are actual events, quoting the sources on which he has based his story.
These books are described by the publisher as being pulp science fiction adventures. However I hesitate to describe them as SF as the translation of the Pennine Fusiliers from the Somme to this unknown world appears to have been effected by the performance of a ‘black magic’ ritual. To my mind SF requires the use of ‘advanced’ technology. That said the stories are cleverly written reflecting many of the attitudes of the early part of the twentieth century, for instance the approach of authority figures (including medics) to shell shock victims, females and native populations.
Although the author’s style of writing took a bit of getting used to, the adventures of the Broughtonthwaite Pals grew on me and I found myself enjoying these books. Their story will continue in THE ALLEYMAN.

Reviewed by Jim Pearce Sep-2011 Published by Abaddon

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Jasper Kent

TWELVE by Jasper Kent

TWELVE is Jasper Kent’s first published novel. Researching Jasper Kent’s past reveals he has turned his hand to a variety of callings, having graduated from Cambridge in Natural Sciences: he has worked as a software developer and has composed a number of musicals; clearly he has a rounded talent. However, I hope that his efforts in these other areas are less pedestrian than his authorship.
I realise that we get a lot of variety in the books forwarded to the BSFG for review; nonetheless I did find this one bit of a surprise. It is an historical horror; a vampire novel set against the failed Napoleonic invasion of Russia in 1812.
The plot, told from the first person view of a Russian army officer, concerns a group of Russian special operatives pitting themselves to stop Napoleon’s advance. When a group of mysterious mercenaries offer their seemingly implausibly competent services, the officers are quick to take them up. The secret behind the mercenaries’ abilities (they are all vampires) soon causes the protagonist to convert from fighting the French to fighting the supernatural threat.
Given the author’s academic background I anticipated that I might learn something of the period from the novel. Unfortunately it felt very light on period detail to me; on reflection, the story might have been told against any military campaign, and aside from place names the book gives no insight into period specific life or motivations. I did find the specific main characters of the Russian officers, the protagonist’s love interest, and the main antagonist to be quite vibrant. However, as this numbers just 5 characters in total, I would certainly hope that the author would give them the effort necessary to make them come alive a little.
The writing itself is very neutral; reasonably easy to read, but lacking in character. The large page count slipped by quite easily, possibly as the font is quite large (enhancing readability) and I suspect that the text could have fitted easily into a smaller volume.
The horror content did not seem to scare me at any point. Maybe this is more me than the book (I cannot recall a time when I was scared reading a horror novel). Certainly it contains gore, as a vampire tale would seem to require, and it is quite creative in the gore’s deployment. Luckily this aspect is used in a sparing manner, which gives it the greatest impact; I have read other volumes that liberally waded through blood, and that approach loses its character very quickly.
The action sequences are written snappily, which does help to produce a level of excitement, and, as with the horror, the action is well placed and never overused. These evident skills of authorship, in conjunction with the overall slight character, makes this book seem rather workman-like: competent, but hardly inspired.
I note that the website ‘Fantasy Book Review’ rates this book highly (currently 8.5 out of 10). I can only assume that this is a damning statement about the field of historical horror, which must be dire indeed if a work as pedestrian as this can claim great praise.

Reviewed by Dave Corby Jul-2010 Published by Bantam

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Katharine Kerr and Kate Daniel

POLAR CITY NIGHTMARE by Katharine Kerr and Kate Daniel

This is one of the most enjoyable books I have read for some time. The authors have managed to combine several genres very successfully.
It is Science Fiction. Set on a planet where the only habitable areas are at the poles. Even then, it is still too hot to comfortably outside during daylight hours so most people are awake during the night. The differences between Hagar and Earth are subtly drawn.
It is a crime novel. An artefact has been stolen from the embassy of the Carli Confederation. If it is not recovered, the political ramifications could well result in war.
It is about that American passion - baseball. The Polar City Bears have won through to the Galactic Series on a neighbouring planet. One of the players has been blackmailed into taking the artefact off world.
It is about prejudice. Yosef Mbaye, the blackmailed player, is an undeclared telepath. Telepaths are not permitted to play professional baseball.
It is feared that they might cheat.
Except that Yosef's abilities do not enable him to read minds. He is a good player because of his co-ordination and his skill in reading body language.
The elements of the novel are skilfully brought together with numerous plot twists. The Carli are sufficiently inscrutable to indicate alien origin without being completely unpenetrable. There is a good balance between realism and anthropomorphism.
The tale leaps along at a cracking pace without sacrificing depth of characterisation. I would like to see more collaborations between these two authors.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Jul-2001 Published by Gollancz

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Daniel Keyes


I have often heard of this book, ever since I was at school, but I have never had the opportunity to read it until now. I was expecting a difficult read but I was very pleasantly surprised, in fact I found it extremely difficult to put the book down.
The book is in the form of a diary kept by Charlie Gordon, a mentally handicapped man, who has agreed to take part in an experiment that will increase his IQ. Algernon, of the title, is a mouse who underwent the experiment before Charlie, whose intelligence has increased immensely.
As the diary progresses you can see Charlie’s intelligence increasing and very soon he loses his job as a floor cleaner at the bakery and eventually surpasses even the scientists’ intelligence. He writes of the cruelties of the people around him as he becomes aware of what and why they do things to him and eventually he becomes aware of the inadequacies of the scientists treating him. The story told in the diary covers a period o f time of about nine months, in which time the story goes full circle. At the beginning Charlie is willing to do the experiment even if it will only make him clever for a short period of time. However, at the end, his loss of intelligence is felt a lot more as he desperately seeks a cure for himself and Algernon. Also, he desperately searches for friendship, love and respect from other people. Only on the way up and on the way back down again does his intelligence measure the same as any of his friends and as he surpasses them they become scared of him. It seems to him like the greatest gift to be given intelligence and yet the cruellest torture to lose it again.
I found this book to be one of the most gripping books I have read in a long time. I loved it and would heartily recommend it to anyone who wants to read a master’s work.

Reviewed by Dan Waters Apr-2000 Published by millennium

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Robert Kirkman & Jay Bonansinga

THE WALKING DEAD: RISE OF THE GOVERNOR by Robert Kirkman & Jay Bonansinga

It is Friday 21st October. Not for a long time has there been such anticipation for a second season of a genre programme. The Walking Dead: Season Two premiered on FX tonight and what a start (yes, this is a book review. Stay with me...). Because those clever producer chaps decided to cash in on the network premiere by releasing a tie-in book on the same date. The episode delivered on all counts, drama, gore tension and zombie goodness. What a shame that RISE OF THE GOVERNOR let the side down. Touted as a standalone trilogy, this novel features the journey of widower Philip Blake, daughter Penny, his brother Brian and a couple of hard-as-nails old school friends as they try to reach the CDC in Atlanta. It starts three days into the zombie apocalypse and is written, rather distractingly, in third person present tense. The point of view is predominantly Brian, with a dash of Philip. However the whole technique means that the book lacks in emotion where the reader should obviously feel something. There is no denying the scenes of gore and the vista of despair that is the broken city of Atlanta is stunningly bleak, and the story itself is sound, but there is something missing from this novel. It’s called ‘feeling’. It is an unrelentingly grim piece of fiction. If that’s what you like, then great - if it isn’t, watch the series or read the comics instead.

Reviewed by Theresa Derwin Dec-2011 Published by Tor

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Margo Lanagan

BLACK JUICE by Margo Lanagan

It's difficult to fault any of the stories in this collection. The characters and situations are as well-conceived as any I've read. The writing is up to any standard you care to name. Although you don't often get much of a plot, that's just a function of the short story. The longest here is 33 pages long so there isn't much chance of anything too elaborate. There's no real theme here. I would have said that many of the stories here are mainstream fiction rather than any particular genre but it seems that some would argue.
Consider the first story here. It's a moving portrait of a very public execution. The method of execution seems odd (slowly sinking into a tar pit) but then different places have different methods of execution. The only unusual thing about the people here is that they seem to have adopted this method of legal execution and they accept it. They seem to be a small tribal community. There is reference to a ‘chief’. Plants have names I don't recognise. There is a group of outsiders known as the fish-people but this could be a reference to how they live (fishermen). I couldn't tell you how these people compare to modern-day tribal communities in Australia or America. I would have said this would belong to the mainstream. Nevertheless, this story “Singing My Sister Down”, won the World Fantasy Award in 2005. I've no doubt that the story deserved awards but I'd not have called it fantasy.
There are stories here that obviously belong to various genres. “My Lord's Man” seems to be historical. “Sweet Pippit” is Richard Adams with elephants. “Red Nose Day” is an alternate-world where Christ was a clown. “Yowlinin” and “Earthly Uses” involve SF-type creatures even though the latter is referred to as an ‘angel’. Others might be taken as some other-world or fantasy situation but I don't think they belong. Almost all of the stories here are set in small communities or out-of-the way places. Almost all involve families or small communities. If I had to compare her writing to anyone else’s, it would be Ray Bradbury. If this were a regular collection and not a selection from a larger body of work, I'd have said she was his equal already and showed promise for better things. I just wonder whether we'll see any of rest of that work in this country.
Despite my comments as to it being fantasy, the story “Wooden Bride” is shortlisted for the James Tiptree Jr Award and this collection is shortlisted for the LA TIMES Book Award in the Young Adult section. William McCabe

Reviewed by Apr-2006 Published by Orion

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Derek Landy

DEMON ROAD by Derek Landy

I'm aware of Derek Landy from the Skullduggery Pleasant books, which I thoroughly enjoyed, so when I heard about DEMON ROAD, I knew I just had to give it a go. Especially when some of the reviews compare it to my favourite TV show, Supernatural.
And the book starts with a bang; "Twelve hours before Amber Lamont's parents tried to kill her, she was sitting between them in the principal's office ..."
She's been called in by Mrs Cobb, because over the last month she has been involved in three altercations, nothing like her normal behaviour. It's clear from the start that Amber is a strong, resilient character and as the quote says, "from the mouths of babes" - Amber's logic and honesty in the face of adversity is honourable. Of course, the adversity isn't what you think - it isn't the threat from Mrs Cobb that's the issue, it's the calm way in which her parents react to Mrs Cobb and decide to 'punish' the principal.
Amber's parents are odd, to say the least. Of course everything starts to make sense when Amber finds herself on the run, and on a hellish road trip on the Demon Road.
As always, Landy's sense of humour shines through the narrative. On this demonic road trip we have the guy with the mysterious and dangerous background (Milo) Glen, the Irish youth exploring America, and Amber. It is through Glen that most of the humour comes through, giving Landy a chance to share his Irish heritage. As for the car the group are travelling in, I can see why the publishers have compared this to Supernatural, as Milo's car has the same amount of personality as Dean's 'Baby' from that series. It's a serious car for a serious dude!
Despite the humour there are also some dark and grim veins running through this book, which add to the overall enjoyment of the novel, from dark characters, to settings, to all manner of creatures, this is immense fun. There's a section of the book, in the town Cascade a Falls, that reads very much like a classic Stephen King novel, but I refuse to say which one because of spoilers.
As well as the aforementioned comedy that is rife through the book, there's also a great deal of poignancy and exploration of what exactly family is and how important family can be. And the end of the adventure is a helluva cliffhanger that means we know Amber has more adventures to come.
Skullduggery was good, but with DEMON ROAD, Landy has outdone himself. A hellishly awesome book.

Reviewed by Theresa Derwin Oct-2015 Published by Harper Collins

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Keith Laumer

THREE BY LAUMER by Keith Laumer

As well as numerous stand-alone novels, Keith Laumer wrote three major series: the Imperium, Retief, and Bolo books. This book, provided by Orion books contains the first in each series. Of these only the first, WORLDS OF THE IMPERIUM is a novel the other two; RETIEF: ENVOY TO NEW WORLDS and BOLO being collections of short stories. WORLDS OF THE IMPERIUM covers the kidnapping of an ‘American’ diplomat to Sweden and his transport to another dimension, that of the Anglo German Empire. There he is made aware of the existence of a series of adjoining realities and of a major risk from a terrorist rogue state. His help of course is key to solving the crisis. It is a good old fashioned enjoyable ‘SF’ typical of the best of its era (1962) and well worth reading.
RETIEF: ENVOY TO NEW WORLDS is as stated above a series of short stories charting the progress of a young diplomat, James Retief through a series of assignments. In these he solves problems of which his ‘superiors’ are not aware and of course saves the day, although credit always goes to someone else. These were, to me, moderately enjoyable with the best bits being the acronyms, e.g. MUDDLE - the Manpower Utilization Directive, Division of Libraries and Education, and also MEDDLE - the Motorized Equipment Depot, Division of Loans and Exchanges. In one of these, to the initiated there is a reference to Bolos. BOLO is also a collection of short stories that includes a ‘Retief ‘story which however only briefly and almost in passing refers to Bolos. These most of my readers will know are Artificial Intelligence-controlled super tanks that are totally loyal and ingenious in carrying out their responsibilities. It was a pleasure to read these stories. Fans of the Bolos may or may not be aware that other authors have written collections set in this ‘universe’. These include David Weber, William H. Keith Jr., John Ringo & Linda Evens. Personally, I own copies of those written by David Weber, namely BOLO and OLD SOLDIERS and thoroughly enjoyed them. They are true to Keith Laumer’s vision. Orion books are to be congratulated for republishing these masterworks

Reviewed by Jim Pearce Nov-2017 Published by Orion

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Ursula LeGuin


I opened this one with some enthusiasm; after all, LeGuin wrote THE DISPOSSESSED, still in my opinion one of the greatest SF novels of all time (though Mr RGP strongly disagreed at the recent AGM).
The title is a pun and sums up the whole idea in one sentence; if you get really bored and miserable when waiting at an airport, you can slip into some alternative world or another. That’s it; the rest of the book is a series of short and very silly excursions into these other ‘planes’ – one in which the inhabitants don’t speak, one where they are perpetually angry, one in which genetic engineering has gone wild, one where they have a religion, or metaphysics, or delusion that no-one else can understand, and so on.
There is no ‘story’ in the normal sense, and maybe the author is trying to say something about the evils of our world, but I lost patience at the sixth or seventh pointless little tale. The whole thing is a piece of sheer self- indulgence that no publisher would have considered if Mrs LeGuin’s magic name wasn’t attached. This time Rog’s epithet is right; “absolute rubbish!”

Reviewed by Peter Weston Apr-2005 Published by Gollancz

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Fritz Leiber


The big, red-bearded barbarian, Fafrd, and the slight, grey-clad swordsman and thief, the Grey Mouser, were fantasy legends of the 1970s. They have been the inspiration for numerous later fantasy heroes, none of which quite match the originals.
Gollancz has reprinted these classics in three volumes instead of the original six. This, Farewell to Lankhmar, is an extra, bringing together the remaining stories. In "Rime Isle" ,the last story o f the previous volume, (Return to Lankhmar in this series, Swords and Ice Magic in the original) the heroes were recruited by Cif and Afreyt, two Rime Islander women, who proved a match for them. When the adventure they were hired to complete was over, Fafrd and the Grey Mouser stayed.
There are four stories in this volume, all of which have been printed elsewhere. Collected her, they form a sequence that is not quite a novel.
In the first, "Sea Magic", the last two Simorgyans decide to reclaim their treasures, which are the sacred icons of the Rime Islanders. They would have succeeded, but Fafrd is drawn to follow Ississi as she flees. In the tussle between them, Fafrd rescues the icons. In "The Mer She" Ississi has a go at the Grey Mouser, who is returning to Rime Isle with a cargo of necessities. He is saved from disaster by his sudden obsession with triple lashing the cargo. This gives the ship sufficient buoyancy to rise to the surface after being dragged under.
In "The Curse of the Smalls and Stars" the two wizards who have sponsored the heroes in the past, decide to try and entice them back to the mainland o f Lankhmar to continue acting as their agents. To this end, they persuade the gods favoured by the heroes, to curse them. Fafrd becomes obsessed with the stars, and Mouser with insignificant things found in gutters. Meanwhile, assassins have been hired to kill the heroes, as previous opponents do not want them returning to the mainland. This story, longer than the previous two, has the touches of humour that made the other novels so enjoyable. "The Mouser goes Below" brings in a number o f characters from previous books and although enjoyable in its own right, is better appreciated if the earlier volumes have been read first.
The plot concerns the wrath o f Loki against the heroes, and without warning, Mouser suddenly sinks into the ground. A frantic digging ensues to rescue him. Fafrd, conversely becomes lighter and floats off into the sky.
Read and enjoy the series, but start with Ill Met in Lankhmar to fully appreciate these legends. This is the weakest book in the series but essential rounding off the heroes lives.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Apr-2000 Published by Millennium

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Loads of people rave over the Grey Mouser and Fafhrd, the heros of the Lankhmar books. This one includes an introduction by Neil Gaiman where he calls the book ‘an enchanting confection of magic and adventure, funny and witty and sane.’ I don’t know. Somehow I’ve never quite found the magic of Lankhmar, maybe because it’s very much fantasy for guys.
The first half of the book is a short novel about the attempted takeover of Lankhmar by intelligent rats. The second half is a series of interconnected short stories, some of which I feel were only included for completeness.
Um. What can I say? I struggled with this. It was well written but I didn’t much enjoy it. If you like swords n sorcery you might well find the magic I missed.

Reviewed by Yvonne Rowse Feb-2000 Published by Millennium

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Rebecca Levene

SMILER’S FAIR (Hollow Gods 1) by Rebecca Levene

Many years ago, the Sun Goddess defeated the Moon God who died. The Moon God’s remaining followers were driven mad and exist now as the homicidal and dreaded Worm Men. Destroyed by sunlight, they were forced underground. Permanent structures or large groups of people attract their attention and they will emerge to create havoc. Adapting to this has meant that most large settlements are now mobile, with large floating towns towed slowly around lakes or travelling groups who settle for days and then move on at the first death. The eponymous SMILER’S FAIR is a large peripatetic carnival that sells all varieties of goods and entertainments. In the story it serves various roles; a home, a meeting place and the location of major events.
At the start of the story, a new-born prince is smuggled away from the father who would kill him to prevent a prophecy. It soon becomes clear that this child will become the re-born Moon god. The main action then takes place some years later as the child is maturing into manhood. The story is multi-stranded as we get to know various characters including: Krish, (the maltreated goatherd and unknowing prince), Nethmi (married unhappily to seal an alliance), Dae Hyo (a drunken warrior of a decimated tribe), Eric (a young male prostitute) and Rii (a giant sentient bat enslaved by the Sun goddess’ acolytes). Their lives and actions gradually move them towards Smiler’s Fair, where a hunted Krish will start to come into his powers and moon magic begins to return to the world.
This book is a bit of a “Marmite” book. I am sure that there are many fans of traditional fantasy who will enjoy this. However I struggled with this book. It is easy enough to read and the story flows along at a reasonable pace. I think my difficulties are with the characters, who I found lacked depth. Many of them do bad things, which is not necessarily a problem even for “heroes”, but these actions seem to have little emotional effect on them. They felt a little too much like archetypes rather than fully fleshed-out characters. Also, if we are supposed to feel that the Sun Goddess is bad and the Moon God good, then not enough is done to establish where our sympathies should lie. If you want a straightforward unchallenging fantasy then this may suit but I prefer authors who add far more complexity to their characters such as Robin Hobb and her excellent Farseer series.

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin Sep-2015 Published by Hodder

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Roger Levy


At some time in the unspecified future the survivors of a failed colonisation attempt have returned to a world devastated by vulcanism. In this dystopian England, where the forces of law and order barely maintain control, people eke out a precarious existence from which virtual reality games offer some kind of escape. Jon Seiler, one o f the survivors, becomes involved with a project to develop a bigger and better game but finds that the project seems already to have taken the life of his best friend and looks likely to kill him as well unless he can discover the secret agenda in time.
The foregoing summary is hardly sufficient to do justice to a very complex book. The plot unfolds gradually, layer by layer, and everything is eventually worked out and explained as various early incidents assume a significance which could scarcely have been foreseen on first encounter. It also displays considerable originality, despite the fact that as I worked my way through the story I found myself identifying several books I knew from which Levy seemed to have derived some of his ideas.
This is not to say that it is plagiaristic - far from it - and considering that it is a first novel, Reckless Sleep is a very considerable achievement.
However, I came to the end undecided as to how much I had enjoyed it. It had held my interest throughout and I had been anxious to get to the end and discover what had really been going on, but when I did find out I felt that ultimately the book was a bit too complicated for its own good.
Nevertheless, I recommend it and would definitely say that further work from this new writer will be worth looking out for. Michael Jones

Reviewed by Apr-2000 Published by Gollancz

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Steve Lewis

ONCE BITTEN edited by Steve Lewis

Too many authors have been asked, by non-writers, where their inspiration comes from. There is never just one answer. It can be from anything – a piece of music, an overheard conversation, a newspaper report. Many will tell you that writing is about hard work rather than inspiration, but the initial spark, the starting point has to come from somewhere. In the case of this volume, the starting point was the art work. Theresa Derwin, the instigator of Once Bitten, saw the painting by Stephen Cooney and thought it would make the ideal cover for a horror anthology. The fifteen stories that finally ended up between the covers all have a theme of love or obsession. There is a very fine line between the two, and there is always a problem when the object of desire doesn’t return the affection.
The two stories that are most memorable in this volume are ‘Housebound’ by Jacob Prytherch and ‘Mama’s Boy’ by Steven Chapman. In the first, Tom Harper is the object of desire and she is very jealous. He cannot leave his house. All his groceries are ordered online. It is the house itself which loves him, and will kill intruders to keep him. The second has similarities. In this case it is Roger, a postman, who is the prisoner, but he is being kept in the basement by a woman who treats him as though he were her baby.
In some stories, the obsession doesn’t always become apparent until the end as in ‘Paper Frog’ by Martin Nike. A meeting on the train between Donald and Suzy develops nicely especially as he realises that she can read minds. The other significant characters are well drawn but the end of this particular story is disappointingly rushed and confused.
The brief for these stories didn’t confine the writer to contemporary horror and SF and fantasy scenarios have been exploited. ‘To The End Of Love’ by Elle Joyce is a future setting where civilisation has suddenly broken down. There is no explanation but none is needed. In fleeing from an exploitative man, Gina falls, literally, into a safe house. Marax is willing to keep her safe in exchange for experiences he cannot otherwise have via the use of a drug. Here, both the drug and love are addictive. It is a well-executed piece of writing. ‘Love Bites’ by Nic Martin is also set in a civilisation which is disintegrating. When Tom is bitten on the way home from shopping he becomes ill and Deb loves him too much to carry out the necessary mercy stroke the media tells her she ought. These stories, despite similarities, have strengths in different areas and are good counterpoints to each other.
‘Oblivion Is The Sweetest Word’ by John R Fultz is the only story that actually uses the cover image as the focus. It is a fantasy in which Taizo the thief is promised great riches to acquire the venom of the sacred spiders of Ghoth. He falls in love with one of the local girls, a love that is doomed by tradition and by what he later discovers. Not only does it match the cover but it is also well crafted.
Myth is always a good source for stories. Unfortunately, too many are just retellings without adding anything to the myth. No so in the case of ‘Thrill Of The Chase’ by N O A Rawle. It starts shakily but gains strength as the narrator gains confidence. It works on the premise that there are monsters living amongst us, in this case a lamia. She wants to fit in to human society but her true nature is always likely to surface.
The eight other stories all have something that gives them a touch of originality. Not all of them are brilliantly executed – they may start heavily and improve towards the end, or do not have clear enough endings. Ambiguity is fine in a story, so is surrealism but confusion lets it down.
All the stories have a horrific or macabre element to them and if you enjoy that kind of story, there will be something here to like.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Aug-2016 Published by Knightwatch Press

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Alison Littlewood

THE CROW GARDEN by Alison Littlewood

This story can probably best be described as Victorian Gothic. The story starts with a recently qualified doctor, Nathaniel Kerner travelling to his newly accepted post as an “alienist” or “mad doctor”. This is at the remote Yorkshire institution of Crakethorne. He is driven by a need to make his mark in science, and thus redeem the family name which is tainted by his father’s suicide when Nathaniel was a child. He wants to experiment with his kinder talking therapies rather than the crude, unscientific and often cruel methods the profession was notorious for in this era. However, his dream posting is not what he has been led to expect. The surroundings are gloomy and depressing, especially the graveyard of former patients, the Crow Garden. Rather than the forward-looking employer he had anticipated, Dr Chettle is instead motivated by money and an obsession with the discredited theory of phrenology (diagnosing a person’s character from the shape of their skull). Disillusioned and disappointed, he is nevertheless determined to persevere and he is particularly drawn to one new patient. This patient, Mrs Harleston appears both more genteel and less obviously affected than the other patients. She had been committed by her husband after claiming that the ghost of his dead child (from a previous marriage) contacted her. As he talks to her, he begins to wonder whether she is truly ‘mad’; might it be a contrivance of her husband to discredit her accusations or is there some truth to her claims of supernatural experience. When one of his attempts to help her leads to her escaping under mysterious circumstances, he follows her trail and in the process, begins to uncover the truth about the enigmatic Mrs Harleston. Alison Littlewood’s last book, THE HIDDEN PEOPLE was one which I really enjoyed. In a similar vein, this book starts with the reader swaying between rational and supernatural explanations for the mysterious events surrounding Mrs Harleston. There is some excellent worldbuilding and the author has clearly spent a lot of time in researching Victorian places, social mores and the “crazes” of the time such as spiritualism and mesmerism. There has also clearly been good attention paid to using vocabulary and prose consistent with those used in contemporaneous novels, so there are no obvious jarring modernisms. However, I found the start of the book far more satisfying than the later portions. The setup is very atmospheric and there it felt to me that the narrative would lead more into a creepy supernatural horror, with Mrs Harleston’s incarceration acting as a catalyst for more strange incidents involving the back stories of the patients and Crakethorne Asylum. There was also a lot of subtext regarding the role and lack of agency of women in Victorian times, which I felt was going to be built on as the story progressed. However, once Mrs Harleston leaves the asylum, I felt the story shifted to a more purely historical drama, rather than the conflict between magic and science in a transitional age that I had expected based on the initial setup. The scenes in London to me lacked the atmosphere of the Asylum setting. Also, I started to lose sympathy with the character of Dr Kerner and I struggled with the slower pace of this section. In the final section of the book, although the location has shifted back to Crakethorne, the plot at this point felt to me to have descended into more melodrama and I found it hard to credit the actions of many of the characters, even given that some of them had been “mesmerised”. This section, following on from the slower middle section, felt somehow rushed in comparison and the potential of the setting and the other patients felt under-utilised. Also at this point it becomes clear that the narrator is now unreliable, which can work in some stories, but is not one of my favourite things. While the author is clearly skilled, I did struggle with this book. Perhaps if one approaches it purely as a historically based story, it might work better, but as a fan of speculative fiction it didn’t quite work for me.

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin Nov-2017 Published by Jo Fletcher

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THE HIDDEN PEOPLE by Alison Littlewood

We like to think we live in a rational world, but irrational beliefs still lie close to the surface. Animal shelters that can’t re-home black cats as people consider them “unlucky” and the recent hysterical reaction to “scary clowns” are only a couple of examples. The horrific consequences of one such belief is the central theme of this novel.
In the middle of the 19th century, a young man leaves behind his comfortable life in the city to see to the affairs of his pretty young cousin. She has been killed in a dreadful way by her husband who apparently believed she was a fairy changeling. (This central incident and the inspiration for the novel is based upon a real event). Feeling that his family have neglected his poorer relation, and with an unrecognised romantic fixation with her, the protagonist wants to understand and uncover the events and reasons which led to her death. When he arrives in the small rural village where she lived, he finds an almost universal belief in the existence of changelings, the Fairy folk and their interference in the lives of people who attract their attention.
When he moves into her “unlucky” cottage, halfway up the fairy hill, he finds himself drawn into this miasma of superstition. What seems easy to believe in the city, bounded by iron railways and modern machines is much harder to hold onto in the “endless summer” of the village. When he is joined by his young, newly pregnant wife, the stage is set for another tragedy as he also struggles to understand her apparently “changed” behaviour in this new environment.
This is a wonderfully atmospheric novel. There is an excellent attention to detail in this book. The careful consideration that has been paid to the vocabulary and style of the prose, so that it is appropriate to the Victorian setting, yet still being eminently readable is exceptional. There was an added verisimilitude to me in that many of the old superstitions were reminiscent of those some of my older relatives held – eg not wearing green because it was the fairies’ colour, or not walking through a fairy ring. The contrast between the new rational, industrial world of the city and the older, unchanged and superstitious countryside is well done without being heavy-handed. The author keeps the narrator, and the reader reeling (like the Fairy dancing road in the book) between whether to believe the superstitious or the more mundane and rational explanations of his cousin’s death. As he digs deeper into village life and the circumstances surrounding his cousin’s death, the story builds to a climax, and the true cleverness of this story becomes more apparent. The reader becomes more and more intrigued as to who the actual hidden people are? Do the fairies exist or does the belief both engender and conceal more human motives and wickedness?
When I started this novel, I expected a fairly straightforward dark fantasy but the book has far more depth to it than that. I loved the difficult balancing act that the author credibly maintains throughout the book and the complexities of character in the narrator and his wife in particular. It is not a gruesome horror book, apart from one somewhat graphic but justifiable scene at the beginning so would suit many who like intelligent, well-written fiction with some fantasy elements.

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin Dec-2016 Published by Jo Fletcher

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Jeff Long

THE DESCENT by Jeff Long

Deep beneath the earth lie a maze of tunnels and caves that connect all the continents of the world. Ruling this subterranean world is ‘Satan’, alive and well.
Over the years people have disappeared into caves and other recesses of the earth never to be seen again. Into this unknown world stumbles Dwight David Crockett - Ike to his friends - the leader of a party of trekkers into the Himalayas. Cut off from civilisation by a ferocious blizzard, Ike and his party take refuge in a mountain cave only to discover the remains of an RAF flyer encased in the rock walls of the cave and covered with strange markings. As the members of the party descend further into the warren of tunnels they discover they are not alone.
The return of Ike to the normal world triggers a massive move to explore the subterranean caverns beneath their feet, but little do the explorers know the consequences of their actions. The battle that develops, between the subterranean dwellers and the invaders from the surface, forces the underground people further from their normal territories. A small, mysterious group, which has been watching and collecting data concerning the occasional forays of the underground dwellers into the surface world, is forced to stand aside and simply watch the events unfolding before it.
The subterranean world has tricks of its own to play on the invaders from the surface, as the casualty rate on both sides climbs.
The blurb on the front cover reads: ‘One major takedown of a read. A page-burner.’ Unfortunately I cannot agree.
This is a story, based on old myths and legends, that, like the story of Atlantis and the stories in the Bible, have been exaggerated and warped through the retelling. As a purely fictional work it could have been better crafted with more sympathy for the characters. The plotline loses its way, so that the whole book becomes a mishmash. The basic idea holds a lot of merit but I feel that the author was running to a publisher’s deadline and what could have been a fine story has turned into a collage of scenes that only start to coalesce near the end.
One definitely for the insomniacs.

Reviewed by Chris Chivers Apr-2001 Published by Orion

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James Lovegrove

PROVENDER GLEED by James Lovegrove

I wonder sometimes that people write science fiction. It’s said that it’s a declining market that doesn’t make as much money as it used to. So why should someone write an SF novel when they’d probably make more from a regular thriller? This is a good case in point. As a thriller it has all the right moves: the plot moves fast enough and the characters are (mostly) solid and believable.
Then there’s this ‘alternate world’ thing. The idea is that sometime during the Renaissance several trading families took over effective control of the world and have been passing down that power along lines of primogeniture (firstborn son) ever since. Technology is somehow changed - they still have airships, there’s a secure tram system for the privileged and lower classes live in tower blocks. It all feels a bit hokey. I can’t help but wonder why it was put in. I don’t believe the history would hold up to scrutiny – think of how often the throne of any country has passed from father to son (many times it doesn’t). This world does have elected governments but their members rely so much on the support of the ‘Families’ that they have little real power. Think of it as a more obvious version of corporate sponsorship. Apart from the odd item, this never really interferes with the plot.
The problem with reviewing this kind of thriller is that it’s so easy to reveal too much of the plot. Provender Gleed is the grandson of the head of the most powerful family in England. Since he is the eldest son of the eldest son, he is being pressured to find a wife to continue the line. Then he is kidnapped.
Although we know from the start who the kidnappers are, we aren’t told who is really behind it. Who is the ‘inside man’? Maybe it’s the actor cousin who is desperately short of money. Has he been paid off by a rival family?
The head of the Gleed family has hired ‘Milner & Moore, Anagrammatic Detectives’ to find his missing grandson. Do they really have a chance of success? Why would anyone think they did? Are they just comic relief, or a chance for the writer to exercise his fascination with anagrams? Believe it or not, there is a good explanation.
Lovegrove has shown that he is capable of writing a good thriller but, on this showing, I wouldn’t rate him on his ‘science fiction’.

Reviewed by William McCabe Nov-2005 Published by Orion

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WORLDSTORM by James Lovegrove

This is a book where the reader has to take a lot on trust or get very annoyed.
The setting is a world ravaged by a very powerful storm, the ‘Worldstorm’ of the title. It moves around the populated areas causing devastation. It cannot be a natural meteorological phenomenon because it does not diminish or follow any logical weather pattern. The people are divided into four factions, each group manifesting psychic powers relating to one of the four elements – earth, air, fire and water. There is a certain amount of tension between factions.
There are three main characters. Elder Ayn is a pre-visionary. He already knows what will happen in his life, in great detail. This makes him arrogant. He believes that as it is fore-ordained, there is no alternative to the actions he is going to follow through. By implication, everything is predestined and no-one has choice.
He has decided that he can thwart the Worldstorm by bringing together two people to create a child who will have the power to destroy it. He manufactures excuses to be in the right place at the right time to meet them.
Yashu is the first of them. She is born in the islands of Water Inclined people.
Until Ayn arrives, she thinks she has no powers. He proves to her that she is Air Inclined like him and should go to the mainland with him. She is a sooth-seer and recognises when others are telling the truth. As Ayn believes what he is saying, she trusts him. He is very careful not to lie in her presence.
Gregory Brazier is the son of a Fire Inclined family. His powers belong to the Earth persuasion. Ayn picks him up in the aftermath of the Battle of Penresford which pitches Fire against Earth after a visit by the Worldstorm.
This is a world riddled with prejudice and superstition. At the end, nothing has moved on. Lives are very much the same as they were, with the exception of the major characters. Even then, it is difficult to know whether Ayn’s manipulations have changed anything. Finally, the reader is left with the thought that either there will be a sequel which will decide if Ayn was right or wrong in his suppositions, or Why? The story is left hanging.
As far as the writing is concerned, it is competent enough. Perhaps the prejudices between the factions are insufficiently explored, though they may be a result of the format. Part of the book is related as Ayn’s memoirs to his enshriner, Khollo. He has an eidetic memory and can forget nothing and these sections are pompous as befitting Ayn’s character. However, they distract from the flow of the narrative which really belongs to Yashu and Gregory. Without knowing if there is to be a sequel it is difficult to know whether to recommend the book. There are probably more fulfilling novels available than this one. A shame, because there are some interesting ideas within it.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Mar-2006 Published by Gollancz

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