I never did receive a review copy of Anthony Ryan's celebrated Blood Song, so I've never read the Raven's Shadow trilogy. Hence, when a galley of The Waking Fire showed up in my mailbox, I knew it was high time for me to give this author a shot! Although I haven't read the books, I'm aware that Queen of Fire, the last volume in Ryan's first series, did not meet with widespread approval from fans. Which is why my expectations were not as high as they might have been.
This is probably why this novel blew me away at first. So much so that The Waking Fire appeared to be the fantasy book of 2016. Unfortunately, the overall quality deteriorated as the story progressed and what seemed to be an incredibly compelling and imaginative read turned into a chaotic and predictable black-and-white mess. In a nutshell, this title is Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn meets Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's Dragonlance meets Indiana Jones meets James Bond. It could have been absolutely brilliant, and for a time it was. Sadly, Ryan wasn't able to sustain this flair throughout. In the end, we are left with a very uneven and somewhat disappointing work of fiction.
Here's the blurb:
Throughout the vast lands controlled by the Ironship Syndicate, nothing is more prized than the blood of drakes. Harvested from the veins of captive or hunted Reds, Green, Blues and Blacks, it can be distilled into elixirs that give fearsome powers to the rare men and women who have the ability harness them—known as the blood-blessed. But not many know the truth: that the lines of drakes are weakening. If they fail, war with the neighboring Corvantine Empire will follow swiftly. The Syndicate's last hope resides in whispers of the existence of another breed of drake, far more powerful than the rest, and the few who have been chosen by fate to seek it. Claydon Torcreek is a petty thief and an unregistered blood-blessed, who finds himself pressed into service by the protectorate and sent to wild, uncharted territories in search of a creature he believes is little more than legend. Lizanne Lethridge is a formidable spy and assassin, facing gravest danger on an espionage mission deep into the heart of enemy territory. And Corrick Hilemore is the second lieutenant of an ironship, whose pursuit of ruthless brigands leads him to a far greater threat at the edge of the world. As lives and empires clash and intertwine, as the unknown and the known collide, all three must fight to turn the tide of a coming war, or drown in its wake.
The worldbuilding is by far the most interesting aspect of this novel. Though using dragon's blood to gain powers is nothing new, it's by no means a fantasy trope. By and large, I feel that the author did a great job in that regard by giving this plot point an original spin. Given the blurb, we knew that the blood of dragons would be at the heart of the tale. The historical backdrop is not your typical medieval European setting. There is a certain level of industrialization, what with the presence of firearms and steam-powered engines. This is a welcome change and gives The Waking Fire a definite unique flavor early on. Two great powers face off across the globe. The Ironship Syndicate, a corporate conglomeration of nations whose mastery of dragon's blood have made them the most powerful political entity in the world, squares off against the Corvantine Empire, an old-school aristocracy which is rapidly losing ground in this conflict.
The blood-blessed were a cool concept and they represent what is hands down the best and most exciting magical system since the one introduced in Sanderson's Mistborn series. Problem is, the politicking can be terribly gauche and plot holes turn this book into a bucket that doesn't always hold much water. The more the story progresses, the more it becomes obvious that the foundations on which the plot must rest are often shaky. By the time we reach the halfway point, various storylines stop making sense and a lot of things seem contrived. The manner in which the three main plotlines are connected and later brought together leaves a lot to be desired and ultimately kills the finale. I don't believe I've ever seen a book start on such a high note, only to peter out for two hundred pages or so, and finally go down the crapper altogether.
The tale is told from the perspective of three extremely disparate protagonists. Claydon Torcreek is a street criminal from the slums who is also secretly blood-blessed. Things go wrong one night and he is press-ganged into service by the powers that be. He is forced to accompany his uncle's crew as they set out to explore remote areas of the continent of Arradsia in search of the fabled white drake. There follows an Indiana Jones-esque expedition across jungle, desert, and mountains. Lizanne Lethridge, a trained spy and assassin, is sent on a mission to gather intelligence on anything that might lead to the discovery of the whereabouts of the White. Though she was the most interesting character to begin with, Lizanne was way too over-the-top and soon became some sort of caricature. Indeed, she's a mix of James Bond, Ronda Rousey, Drizzt Do'Urden, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in movies such as Commando (in which he manages to gun down dozens of bad guys shooting at him with automatic weapons while carrying only a 3-shell shotgun without reloading). I mean, this woman could probably survive a nuclear strike just by holding her breath. Intelligent and crafty, not only is she badass with a capital B and survives armies and dragons without getting so much as a papercut, but she's also the one who keeps unraveling all the mysteries that are at the heart of the plot. Her storyline is closely linked to Claydon's and the relationship engendered by this connection is as improbable as it is unbelievable. As a street thug, I found it hard to fathom that he could show such empathy toward her and vice versa. The last point of view is that of Corrick Hilemore, an officer newly assigned to what could be the fastest ironship in the fleet. For the better part of the book, it appears that his POV serves no other purpose than to witness rousing naval battles. And though these are fun and exciting, until the very end one keeps wondering exactly why roughly a third of The Waking Fire is dedicated to him. Still, even if Hilemore is likely the least engaging protagonist of the three, his storyline is doubtless the most gripping. Like Brandon Sanderson, it appears that Anthony Ryan has problems with shades of gray. Though he handles mature themes better than Sanderson, both authors' characters are decidedly black-and-white. And this, for me at least, was a major disappointment. Having said that, considering Sanderson's immense popularity, I reckon that a multitude of readers might not have a problem with this aspect.
The pace is rather crooked throughout. Following an amazing and inventive beginning, the rhythm starts to slow down in the middle portion of the book. This is no problem at first, as the tale continues to capture your imagination and keeps you turning those pages. But as Lizanne and Clay's plotlines intertwine more and more, and as war with the Corvantine Empire seems inevitable, the pace goes to hell and The Waking Fire gradually becomes a slow-moving and predictable mess. Especially Lizanne's storylines, which makes less and less sense with each new chapter. The lead-up to the endgame is a crazy succession of unbelievable scenes in which our protagonists come out on top, no matter how high the odds are stacked up against them. I am well aware that this is a work of fantasy, but this is just so impossibly absurd that it stretched the bounds of credulity to their breaking point. At least as far as I'm concerned. . .
As a result, the endgame and what led up to it was so far-fetched and ridiculous that it robbed the ending of whatever impact Anthony Ryan envisioned for it. Thankfully, there is resolution of sorts. Yet it is obvious that The Waking Fire was meant to be an introduction to a much bigger tale. I just wish it had lived up to the great potential it showed early on.
The Waking Fire could have been a stunning novel. But subpar and black-and-white characterization, over-the-top battle scenes, poor execution, plot holes, and an uneven pace prevented this one from achieving greatness. Too bad, as all the ingredients were there.
For a limited time only, you can download Helene Wecker's excellent The Golem and the Jinni for only 1.99$ here!
Here's the blurb:
Helene Wecker's dazzling debut novel tells the story of two supernatural creatures who appear mysteriously in 1899 New York. Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a strange man who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York Harbor. Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian Desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. Struggling to make their way in this strange new place, the Golem and the Jinni try to fit in with their neighbors while masking their true natures. Surrounding them is a community of immigrants: the coffeehouse owner Maryam Faddoul, a pillar of wisdom and support for her Syrian neighbors; the solitary ice cream maker Saleh, a damaged man cursed by tragedy; the kind and caring Rabbi Meyer and his beleaguered nephew, Michael, whose Sheltering House receives newly arrived Jewish men; the adventurous young socialite Sophia Winston; and the enigmatic Joseph Schall, a dangerous man driven by ferocious ambition and esoteric wisdom. Meeting by chance, the two creatures become unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures, until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful menace will soon bring the Golem and the Jinni together again, threatening their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice. Marvelous and compulsively readable, The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of folk mythology, historical fiction, and magical fable into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.
The digital edition of Dan Simmons' Carrion Comfort is also available for only 2.99$ here.
Here's the blurb:
"CARRION COMFORT is one of the three greatest horror novels of the 20th century. Simple as that." --Stephen King "Epic in scale and scope but intimately disturbing, CARRION COMFORT spans the ages to rewrite history and tug at the very fabric of reality. A nightmarish chronicle of predator and prey that will shatter your world view forever. A true classic." --Guillermo del Toro "CARRION COMFORT is one of the scariest books ever written. Whenever I get the question asked Who's your favorite author? my answer is always Dan Simmons." --James Rollins "One of the few major reinventions of the vampire concept, on a par with Jack Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, and Stephen King's Salem's Lot. --David Morrell THE PAST... Caught behind the lines of Hitler's Final Solution, Saul Laski is one of the multitudes destined to die in the notorious Chelmno extermination camp. Until he rises to meet his fate and finds himself face to face with an evil far older, and far greater, than the Nazi's themselves… THE PRESENT... Compelled by the encounter to survive at all costs, so begins a journey that for Saul will span decades and cross continents, plunging into the darkest corners of 20th century history to reveal a secret society of beings who may often exist behind the world's most horrible and violent events. Killing from a distance, and by darkly manipulative proxy, they are people with the psychic ability to 'use' humans: read their minds, subjugate them to their wills, experience through their senses, feed off their emotions, force them to acts of unspeakable aggression. Each year, three of the most powerful of this hidden order meet to discuss their ongoing campaign of induced bloodshed and deliberate destruction. But this reunion, something will go terribly wrong. Saul's quest is about to reach its elusive object, drawing hunter and hunted alike into a struggle that will plumb the depths of mankind's attraction to violence, and determine the future of the world itself…
"I thought I was fighting for something worthwhile. Live long enough, and you'll see how rare it is to believe in something enough to risk your life for it. And you'll see how dangerous that belief can make you."
You can get your hands on the digital edition of Paul Tremblay's A Head Full of Ghosts for only 1.99$ here.
Here's the blurb:
WINNER OF THE 2015 BRAM STOKER AWARD FOR SUPERIOR ACHIEVEMENT IN A NOVEL A chilling thriller that brilliantly blends psychological suspense and supernatural horror, reminiscent of Stephen King's The Shining, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, and William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist. The lives of the Barretts, a normal suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia. To her parents’ despair, the doctors are unable to stop Marjorie’s descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help. Father Wanderly suggests an exorcism; he believes the vulnerable teenager is the victim of demonic possession. He also contacts a production company that is eager to document the Barretts’ plight. With John, Marjorie’s father, out of work for more than a year and the medical bills looming, the family agrees to be filmed, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. When events in the Barrett household explode in tragedy, the show and the shocking incidents it captures become the stuff of urban legend. Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry. As she recalls those long ago events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories that clash with what was broadcast on television begin to surface—and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed, raising vexing questions about memory and reality, science and religion, and the very nature of evil.
You can now download Elizabeth Bonesteel's The Cold Between for only 1.99$ here.
Here's the blurb:
Deep in the stars, a young officer and her lover are plunged into a murder mystery and a deadly conspiracy in this first entry in a stellar military science-fiction series in the tradition of Lois McMaster Bujold. When her crewmate, Danny, is murdered on the colony of Volhynia, Central Corps chief engineer, Commander Elena Shaw, is shocked to learn the main suspect is her lover, Treiko Zajec. She knows Trey is innocent—he was with her when Danny was killed. So who is the real killer and why are the cops framing an innocent man? Retracing Danny’s last hours, they discover that his death may be tied to a mystery from the past: the explosion of a Central Corps starship at a wormhole near Volhynia. For twenty-five years, the Central Gov has been lying about the tragedy, even willing to go to war with the outlaw PSI to protect their secrets. With the authorities closing in, Elena and Trey head to the wormhole, certain they’ll find answers on the other side. But the truth that awaits them is far more terrifying than they ever imagined . . . a conspiracy deep within Central Gov that threatens all of human civilization throughout the inhabited reaches of the galaxy—and beyond.
You can get your hands on the digital edition of Joe Hill's Horns for only 1.99$ here.
Here's the blurb:
Joe Hill's critically acclaimed, New York Times bestselling, Bram Stoker Award-winning debut chiller, Heart-Shaped Box, heralded the arrival of new royalty onto the dark fantasy scene. With Horns, he polishes his well-deserved crown. A twisted, terrifying new novel of psychological and supernatural suspense, Horns is a devilishly original triumph for the Ray Bradbury Fellowship recipient whose story collection, 20th Century Ghosts, was also honored with a Bram Stoker Award—and whose emotionally powerful and macabre work has been praised by the New York Times as, "wild, mesmerizing, perversely witty…a Valentine from hell."
You can download the supposedly darker than grimdark Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher for only 1.99$ here.
Here's the blurb:
A darkly imaginative writer in the tradition of Joe Abercrombie, Peter V. Brett, and Neil Gaiman conjures a gritty mind-bending fantasy, set in a world where delusion becomes reality . . . and the fulfillment of humanity's desires may well prove to be its undoing. Faith shapes the landscape, defines the laws of physics, and makes a mockery of truth. Common knowledge isn't an axiom, it's a force of nature. What the masses believe is. But insanity is a weapon, conviction a shield. Delusions give birth to foul new gods. Violent and dark, the world is filled with the Geisteskranken--men and women whose delusions manifest, twisting reality. High Priest Konig seeks to create order from chaos. He defines the beliefs of his followers, leading their faith to one end: a young boy, Morgen, must Ascend to become a god. A god they can control. But there are many who would see this would-be-god in their thrall, including the High Priest's own Doppels, and a Slaver no one can resist. Three reprobates--The Greatest Swordsman in the World, a murderous Kleptic, and possibly the only sane man left--have their own nefarious plans for the young god. As these forces converge on the boy, there's one more obstacle: time is running out. When one's delusions become more powerful, they become harder to control. The fate of the Geisteskranken is to inevitably find oneself in the Afterdeath. The question, then, is: Who will rule there?
Although Half a War brought Joe Abercrombie's YA series to a satisfying end, I was looking forward to his return to adult novels and was eager to read his collection of short stories, Sharp Ends. Oddly enough, this newest Abercrombie title did not cause much of a stir within SFF circles when it was published. Which may or may not be that surprising given that fans habitually prefer novel-length projects and seldom get excited by short fiction works. Still, we're talking about one of the biggest names in the grimdark subgenre, so I expected more of a buzz regarding the author's latest.
I had already read "The Fool Jobs" and "Tough Times All Over", initially published in the anthologies Swords and Dark Magic and Rogues respectively. The same thing goes for "Two's Company", a free short story posted on tor.com a while back. All the other pieces were new to me, though, and I was excited by the prospect of seeing familiar faces from the First Law books getting more exposure. And therein lies this collection's biggest shortcoming, in my humble opinion. Although a few characters that made Abercrombie's books such memorable reads make appearances, about half of Sharp Ends focus on Javre and Shevedieh. When the blurb implied that we'd get more on Glokta, Craw, and Logen Ninefingers, well one can't help but to be a little disappointed. . .
Here's the blurb:
The Union may be full of bastards, but there’s only one who thinks he can save the day single-handed when the Gurkish come calling: the incomparable Colonel Sand dan Glokta. Curnden Craw and his dozen are out to recover a mysterious item from beyond the Crinna. Only one small problem: no one seems to know what the item is. Shevedieh, the self-styled best thief in Styria, lurches from disaster to catastrophe alongside her best friend and greatest enemy, Javre, Lioness of Hoskopp. And after years of bloodshed, the idealistic chieftain Bethod is desperate to bring peace to the North. There’s only one obstacle left – his own lunatic champion, the most feared man in the North: the Bloody-Nine . . . Sharp Ends combines previously published, award-winning short tales with exclusive new short stories. Violence explodes, treachery abounds, and the words are as deadly as the weapons in this rogue’s gallery of side-shows, back-stories, and sharp endings from the world of the First Law.
All the short fiction pieces contained in this collection are set in the Circle of the World. They are arranged in chronological order, with the earliest occurring years before The Blade Itself and the most recent taking place a few years following the events chronicled in Red Country. As a big Abercrombie fan, I was expecting these stories to allow the author to flesh out some of the protagonists that we have come to love. However, with so much of the focus being on Javre and Shevedieh, I felt that Sharp Ends left a little to be desired. Based on the quality of Abercrombie's First Law titles, I was expecting more out of this collection. But in the end, only a few of the stories resonated with me. Most of them, though fun and entertaining, were, for the most part, a bit forgettable. I finished this book two days ago, and yet I had to go back and reread portions of nearly all these tales in order to write this review.
As mentioned, the problem is that Javre, Lioness of Hoskopp, a sex-crazed warrior-priestess amazon, and Shevedieh, lesbian thief of some renown, take center stage too often. Their misadventures are amusing and the back-and-forth between the two hilarious. But overall, it's nothing that stays with you. "Small Kindnesses", "Skipping Town", "Two’s Company", "Three’s a Crowd", and "Tough Times All Over" follow them, from when they first meet to the time they finally part ways, through the good times and the bad. These stories essentially form the backbone of Sharp Ends and these two women simply cannot carry the bulk of this book on their shoulders.
Like most Abercrombie fans, I was eager to read more about Sand dan Glokta. Unfortunately, he only appears in "A Beautiful Bastard" and it only provides a very brief glance at the way he was before being crippled by the Gurkish. Cameos by Tunny and West were interesting, but in the end this one was rather lackluster. The same can be said of "Some Desperado", which is a backstory for Shy from Red Country. "Freedom!" was some kind of anomaly and didn't deserve to be part of this book.
Curnden Craw and Cracknut Whirrun made "The Fool Jobs" one of the best stories of this collection. Another strong tale was "Yesterday, near a village called Barden". Abercrombie shows both sides of a raid gone wrong and features characters from The Heroes. The very best piece is doubtless "Made A Monster", in which Bethod realizes that he made the Bloody-Nine into a weapon he can no longer control.
"Hell", featuring Temple from Red Country, and "Wrong Place, Wrong time", in which some not entirely innocent bystanders are drawn into the chaos that is Monzcarro Murcatto’s vengeance, are good and compelling tales in their own right. But nothing that really makes an impact and stays with you afterward.
All in all, like most SFF short fiction collections, Sharp Ends features some strong stories, some okay tales, and a number of uninspired pieces that only serve as filler material. Having said that, it's still a fun read for anyone who loved Joe Abercrombie's The First Law and its sequels.
You can get your hands on the digital edition of Max Barry's Lexicon for only 1.99$ here.
Here's the blurb:
Stick and stones break bones. Words kill. They recruited Emily Ruff from the streets. They said it was because she's good with words. They'll live to regret it. They said Wil Parke survived something he shouldn't have. But he doesn't remember. Now they're after him and he doesn't know why. There's a word, they say. A word that kills. And they want it back . . .
You can also download Timothy Zahn's Conquerors' Pride for only 1.99$ here.
Here's the blurb:
Timothy Zahn, Hugo Award-winning author of The New York Times best-selling Star Wars trilogy, blazes a spectacular new path across the sky in an epic original novel of star-spanning action adventure, mystery and intrigue. A long era of peace and prosperity in the interstellar Commonwealth has suddenly come to an end. Four alien starships of unknown origin have attacked, without provocation, an eight-ship Peacemaker task force, utterly destroying it in six savage minutes. The authorities claim there were no survivors. But Lord Stewart Cavanaugh, a former member of Parliament, has learned through back channels that one man may have survived to be captured by the aliens: his son, Commander Pheylan Cavanaugh. A large-scale invasion appears imminent, and the strictest security measures are in effect . . . measures that Lord Cavanaugh has no choice but to defy. He recruits Adam Quinn, who once flew with the elite Copperheads--fighter pilots whose minds are literally one with their machines--to rescue his son. Quinn assembles a crack force of Copperheads to steal out of the Commonwealth security zone and snatch Pheylan Cavanaugh from the conquerors. Depending on the outcome, Quinn and his men will retum home as heroes or as the galaxy's most despised traitors--if they come home at all.
Finally, you can still download Robin Hobb's excellent Ship of Magic for only 1.99$ here.
Here's the blurb:
Bingtown is a hub of exotic trade and home to a merchant nobility famed for its liveships—rare vessels carved from wizardwood, which ripens magically into sentient awareness. Now the fortunes of one of Bingtown’s oldest families rest on the newly awakened liveship Vivacia. For Althea Vestrit, the ship is her rightful legacy. For Althea’s young nephew, wrenched from his religious studies and forced to serve aboard the ship, the Vivacia is a life sentence. But the fate of the ship—and the Vestrits—may ultimately lie in the hands of an outsider: the ruthless buccaneer captain Kennit, who plans to seize power over the Pirate Isles by capturing a liveship and bending it to his will. BONUS: This edition includes an excerpt from Robin Hobb's Mad Ship.
Thanks to the generosity of the folks at Harper Voyager, I have two copies of Ian Douglas' Altered Starscape up for grabs! For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
2162. Thirty-eight years after first contact, Lord Commander Grayson St. Clair leads the Tellus Ad Astra on an unprecedented expedition to the Galactic Core, carrying more than a million scientists, diplomats, soldiers, and AIs. Despite his reservations about their alien hosts, St. Clair is deeply committed to his people—especially after they're sucked into a black hole and spat out four billion years in the future. Civilizations have risen and fallen. The Andromeda Galaxy is drifting into the Milky Way. And Earth is most certainly a distant memory. All that matters now is survival. But as the ship's Marines search for allies amid ancient ruins and strange new planetary structures, St. Clair must wrap his mind around an enemy capable of harnessing a weapon of incomprehensible power: space itself.
You can download a copy of Tim Powers' The Drawing of the Dark for only 1.99$ here.
Here's the blurb:
Brian Duffy, aging soldier of fortune, had been hired in Venice by a strange old man who called himself Aurelianus Ambrosius. He was supposed to go to Vienna and act as bouncer at an inn where the fabulous Herzwesten beer was brewed. That was clear enough. But why was he guided and guarded on the trip by creatures from the ancient legends? Why should he be attacked by ifrits and saved by mythical dwarfs? What was so important about the Herzwesten beer to the Fisher King -- whoever he was? Why was Duffy plagued by visions of a sword and an arm rising from a lake? And what had a bunch of drunken, ancient Vikings to do with it all? Then there was no time for speculation as Vienna was besieged by the Turkish armies of Suleiman. Duffy found himself drawn into a war of desperation and magic. It was up to him to preserve the West until the drawing of the Dark.
You can also get your hands on the digital edition of Anne Rice's Prince Lestat for only 1.99$ here.
Here's the blurb:
Rice once again summons up the irresistible spirit-world of the oldest and most powerful forces of the night, invisible beings unleashed on an unsuspecting world able to take blood from humans, in a long-awaited return to the extraordinary world of the Vampire Chronicles and the uniquely seductive Queen of the Damned ("mesmerizing" --San Francisco Chronicle), a long-awaited novel that picks up where The Vampire Lestat ("brilliant…its undead characters are utterly alive" --New York Times) left off more than a quarter of a century ago to create an extraordinary new world of spirits and forces--the characters, legend, and lore of all the Vampire Chronicles. The novel opens with the vampire world in crisis…vampires have been proliferating out of control; burnings have commenced all over the world, huge massacres similar to those carried out by Akasha in The Queen of the Damned…Old vampires, roused from slumber in the earth are doing the bidding of a Voice commanding that they indiscriminately burn vampire-mavericks in cities from Paris and Mumbai to Hong Kong, Kyoto, and San Francisco. As the novel moves from present-day New York and the West Coast to ancient Egypt, fourth century Carthage, 14th-century Rome, the Venice of the Renaissance, the worlds and beings of all the Vampire Chronicles-Louis de Pointe du Lac; the eternally young Armand, whose face is that of a Boticelli angel; Mekare and Maharet, Pandora and Flavius; David Talbot, vampire and ultimate fixer from the secret Talamasca; and Marius, the true Child of the Millennia; along with all the other new seductive, supernatural creatures-come together in this large, luxuriant, fiercely ambitious novel to ultimately rise up and seek out who-or what-the Voice is, and to discover the secret of what it desires and why… And, at the book's center, the seemingly absent, curiously missing hero-wanderer, the dazzling, dangerous rebel-outlaw--the great hope of the Undead, the dazzling Prince Lestat…
I'm giving away a copy of Sam Sykes' Shy Knives to one lucky winner! For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
The author wrote a piece on why he wrote a Pathfinder book for barnsandnoble.com and you can read it here.
Here's the blurb:
Shaia “Shy” Ratani is a clever rogue who makes her living outside of strictly legal methods. While hiding out in the frontier city of Yanmass, she accepts a job solving a nobleman’s murder, only to find herself sucked into a plot involving an invading centaur army that could see the whole city burned to the ground. Shy could stop that from happening, but doing so would involve revealing herself to the former friends who now want her dead. Add in an aristocratic partner with the literal blood of angels in her veins, and Shy quickly remembers why she swore off doing good deeds in the first place. Based on the award-winning world of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. With more than a million players worldwide, Pathfinder is the world's most popular tabletop RPG.
The rules are the same as usual. You need to send an email at reviews@(no-spam)gryphonwood.net with the header "SHY." Remember to remove the "no spam" thingy.
Second, your email must contain your full mailing address (that's snail mail!), otherwise your message will be deleted.
Lastly, multiple entries will disqualify whoever sends them. And please include your screen name and the message boards that you frequent using it, if you do hang out on a particular MB.
This Gulf of Time and Stars was the first Julie E. Czerneda book I ever read. And though it probably wasn't the best jumping point for someone who had yet to read anything by the author, once the story took off it made for a satisfying reading experience. The ending did pack a good punch and I was looking forward to the second volume. Time would tell if the next two installments would live up to the potential generated by the first one, which brings us to this review.
Sadly, The Gate to Futures Past failed to live up to the expectations I had for this novel. Although it got better toward the end, I'm afraid that this one suffers from the same shortcomings as its predecessor. Trouble is, it doesn't benefit from the facets that made This Gulf of Time and Stars a more compelling read.
Here's the blurb:
Second novel in the hard sci-fi Reunification series, The Gate to Futures Past continues the Clan Chronicles, perfect for space opera readers looking for unique aliens and interstellar civilizations. Betrayed and attacked, the Clan fled the Trade Pact for Cersi, believing that world their long-lost home. With them went a lone alien, the Human named Jason Morgan, Chosen of their leader, Sira di Sarc. Tragically, their arrival upset the Balance between Cersi’s three sentient species. And so the Clan, with their newfound kin, must flee again. Their starship, powered by the M’hir, follows a course set long ago, for Clan abilities came from an experiment their ancestors—the Hoveny—conducted on themselves. But it’s a perilous journey. The Clan must endure more than cramped conditions and inner turmoil. Their dead are Calling. Sira must keep her people from answering, for if they do, they die. Morgan searches the ship for answers, afraid the Hoveny’s tech is beyond his grasp. Their only hope? To reach their destination. Little do Sira and Morgan realize their destination holds the gravest threat of all…
Although Julie E. Czerneda is renowned for her complex worldbuilding and for creating original alien species, it wasn't necessarily the case with This Gulf of Time and Stars. The same can be said of this second volume, in which this aspect doesn't play much of a role until the protagonists reach their destination in the last portion of the story. And yet, we have to keep in mind that the author lay the groundwork for this new trilogy in two past series and most of the worldbuilding has already been established. The bulk of the story takes place aboard the sentient ship Sona, on its journey to what could be the birthplace of the Hoveny Concentrix. It's about the drama and the tension engendered by being stuck within the confines of an evasive spaceship on its way to an unknown destination. Czerneda explores the madness and the hopeless desperation associated with refugees forced to live in such miserable conditions. That part of the tale, though slow-moving and at times a bit boring, was particularly well-done.
The references to the mysterious Hoveny Concentrix, the greatest alien civilization the universe has ever known, and how they might be tied to Cersi and its inhabitants were the most fascinating facet of This Gulf of Time and Stars. But I'm afraid that the culmination of this particular plotline, given the important build-up, was a bit lackluster in depth and execution. Which, in the end, was a major disappointment. It felt as though the entire Brightfall/Hoveny Prime storyline was rushed compared to the rest of the novel, which is why the endgame ultimately lacked the punch which allowed the first volume to end on such a high note. The revelation as to why the Hoveny Concentrix disappeared without leaving a trace was enthralling, but the follow-up too rushed to do it justice. The ending itself, however, hits you like a kick in the balls. Shocking and unexpected, it turns the entire Clan Chronicles saga on its head and seemingly brings everything to an abrupt end. It will be interesting to see how Czerneda will bring it back to life in the final installment of the series.
Once again, most of The Gate to Futures Past is told from the perspectives of two main protagonists: Sira di Sarc, former leader of the Clan, and Jason Morgan, her human Chosen. Both are three-dimensional and likeable characters and their different viewpoints make for an interesting narrative. As was the case in the first volume, Czerneda lays it a bit thick when it comes to the romantic side and what they mean to each other, and that can be irritating. The sentient hair has also become an annoying contrivance that is used to often. There are occasional sections offering other points of view, especially once the story shifts to Brightfall and a local frame of reference is required. And even though Sira and Morgan will always take center stage, in This Gulf of Time and Stars I felt that more POVs from the rest of the cast would have added layers to the characterization. Not so in this one. Although additional points of view were necessary to establish the various Brightfall plotlines, those POVs were often confusing and actually bogged down the narrative. Especially at the beginning with all those weird pronouns. Still, what was truly detrimental to the characterization of this novel was that Sira and Morgan are always smarter/stronger/better than everyone else and they're always the ones working out the puzzles and saving everyone from impending doom. I mean, it appears that pretty much all but a few rare souls among the M'hiray and the Om'ray traveling aboard the Sona are fearful and pitiful weaklings in need of constant reassurance from Sira. Talk about a sorry bunch of cowards with which to start a civilization anew. . .
The pace of this book is extremely uneven. Julie E. Czerneda spends nearly half of the novel exploring how the hopelessness and the terror associated with refugees being held captive in a sentient ship flying who knows where affect everyone aboard. Those storylines and that of the dead Calling to the M'hiray and the Om'ray make for an absorbing but slow-moving beginning. I feel that too much focus may have been given to that portion of the tale, which could explain why the endgame felt so rushed afterward. The Brightfall storylines, which were meant to surprise readers and elevate The Gate to Futures Past to another level, would have benefited from more exposure. As things stand, once Sira, Jason, and the refugees meet the local authorities, for some unfathomable reason the author felt the need to hurry through everything that occurs in the wake of that meeting. This robs the endgame of the impact that it should have had and briskly moves the reader toward the ending that suffers from such dashing speed. When it comes, the end is as unexpected as it is startling. All the more so because it appears to bring the entire saga, and not just this second installment, to a sudden ending. Of course, by closing the show in such a dramatic fashion, the author made sure that readers will have no choice but to pick up the final volume. As I mentioned, it will be interesting to see how Czerneda will revive this trilogy in To Guard Against the Dark. We can already surmise that Sira and Jason's undying love will be at the heart of it, but I'm looking forward to discovering what the author has in store for her readers.
Though weaker in basically every aspect than its predecessor, The Gate to Futures Past nevertheless ends in such a way that it will make it impossible for anyone not to pick up the third volume. Still, it is disappointing that subpar execution and characterization ultimately sunk this book and prevented it from being as satisfying as This Gulf of Time and Stars. All the ingredients were there, no doubt about it.
Let us hope that Julie E. Czerneda will raise the bar higher and close the show with style and aplomb in To Guard Against the Dark.
You can now get your hands on the digital edition of Chris Wooding's Retribution Falls for only 1.99$ here.
Here's the blurb:
Sky piracy is a bit out of Darian Frey’s league. Fate has not been kind to the captain of the airship Ketty Jay—or his motley crew. They are all running from something. Crake is a daemonist in hiding, traveling with an armored golem and burdened by guilt. Jez is the new navigator, desperate to keep her secret from the rest of the crew. Malvery is a disgraced doctor, drinking himself to death. So when an opportunity arises to steal a chest of gems from a vulnerable airship, Frey can’t pass it up. It’s an easy take—and the payoff will finally make him a rich man. But when the attack goes horribly wrong, Frey suddenly finds himself the most wanted man in Vardia, trailed by bounty hunters, the elite Century Knights, and the dread queen of the skies, Trinica Dracken. Frey realizes that they’ve been set up to take a fall but doesn’t know the endgame. And the ultimate answer for captain and crew may lie in the legendary hidden pirate town of Retribution Falls. That’s if they can get there without getting blown out of the sky.
Josiah Bancroft's Senlin Ascends recently received the seal of approval of both fantasy author Mark Lawrence and popular blogger Adam Whitehead and you can now download it for only 3.99$ here.
Might want to keep an eye out for this one. . .
Here's the blurb:
While honeymooning in the Tower of Babel, Thomas Senlin loses his wife, Marya. The Tower of Babel is the greatest marvel of the Silk Age. Immense as a mountain, the ancient Tower holds unnumbered ringdoms, warring and peaceful, stacked one on the other like the layers of a cake. It is a world of geniuses and tyrants, of airships and steam engines, of unusual animals and mysterious machines. Thomas Senlin, the mild-mannered headmaster of a small village school, is drawn to the Tower by scientific curiosity and the grandiose promises of a guidebook. The luxurious Baths of the Tower seem an ideal destination for a honeymoon, but soon after arriving, Senlin loses Marya in the crowd. Senlin’s search for Marya carries him through madhouses, ballrooms, and burlesque theaters. He must survive betrayal, assassination, and the long guns of a flying fortress. But if he hopes to find his wife, he will have to do more than just survive. This quiet man of letters must become a man of action.
This lucky winner will get his hands on a copy of Brandon Sanderson's The Dark Talent, the fifth volume in the Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians, courtesy of the folks at Tor Books. For info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
First of all, I just want to apologize for being so behind on my reviews. Got three of them in the pipeline, two of which should have been written and posted weeks ago. But I've been going hiking pretty much on all my days off lately and I haven't had time to get to work on any of them. Sorry about that. . . But the beautiful fall colors up here are a temptation that I simply can't resist!
I've been wanting to give N.K. Jemisin a shot for quite some time. And when The Fifth Season won the Hugo Award for best novel, I knew the time had come. I never received a review copy of The Fifth Season, but I was able to dig out a copy of her debut, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Oddly enough, though that book was nominated for the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Awards, a lot of fans today seem to opine that it's probably the author's weakest work. Be that has it may, it's the one I had on hand and it's the one I read.
In the end, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a solid debut. Like most SFF debuts, it features a number of flaws, most notably a first-person narrative that can be tricky at times, as well as a corny love story and some decidedly clichéd villains. But all in all, Jemisin's fantasy debut is an original and enjoyable read.
Here's the blurb:
Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle with cousins she never knew she had. As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother's death and her family's bloody history. With the fate of the world hanging in the balance, Yeine will learn how perilous it can be when love and hate - and gods and mortals - are bound inseparably together.
The worldbuilding doesn't play much of a role in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Although it is obvious that there is a lot more than meets the eye, N.K. Jemisin's plays her cards rather close to her chest and doesn't go all out in this debut. I have a feeling that readers will learn a lot more about the world, its inhabitants, the gods, and everything else in the two sequels, but the plot is rather straightforward in this one. The author provides information sporadically, in small increments that allow readers to follow along as the story progresses, but nothing more. I would have liked Jemisin to be a bit more forthcoming in that regard, as the most fascinating portions of the book are definitely the scenes in which revelations about the past are made. There is some political intrigue and a century-spanning plot that could change the world forever, yet the main story arc could have used a bit more suspense and mystery.
The characterization is probably the weakest aspect of this novel. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms features the first-person narrative of Yeine. The tale is told from her point of view at some point in the future, which robs the ending of much of its impact and makes it more or less predictable. In addition, especially at the beginning, there are questions about just how reliable a narrator Yeine truly is. She often appears to be distracted, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It all makes sense later on when the truth about Yeine is unveiled, but all the chapters' beginnings feel odd at first. Jemisin also has a tendency to have Yeine's thoughts move forward or backward in time, often going off on tangents that completely break the narrative's progress and don't always have much to do with the story. This usually kills the momentum of what is already a slow-moving plot and brings little or nothing to the tale. As mentioned, the love story was a bit overdone and corny in its execution. And that sex scene was a little too over-the-top. Still, it's the villains that leave the most to be desired. They're basically just your generic cruel bad guys, which was quite disappointing.
Having said that, even though the characterization is subpar, N.K. Jemisin scores points for exploring themes such as slavery, sexism, racism, and the abuse of power. She weaves these deeper issues throughout the various plotlines, sometimes subtly in the background and sometimes in more flagrant fashion. Regardless of how it's done, this is what ultimately gives soul to the novel. In the end, regardless of its flaws and its predictable ending, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms turned out to be a compelling and satisfying read. I'm told that the subsequent volumes will feature different points of view and will take place in other locales, which is for the best. One can only hope that we'll get to see more of the world and that the plot will feature more characters and be a bit more convoluted.
You can now get your hands on the digital edition of Andrzej Sapkowski's The Last Wish for only 2.99$ here.
Here's the blurb:
Geralt of Rivia is a witcher. A cunning sorcerer. A merciless assassin. And a cold-blooded killer. His sole purpose: to destroy the monsters that plague the world. But not everything monstrous-looking is evil and not everything fair is good. . . and in every fairy tale there is a grain of truth. The international hit that inspired the video game: The Witcher.
“This is a true story, if words can be true. If not, then these are only
words. “Once upon the past, during the preserve of the queen’s sixteenth High Celebrant, in the era of the Wars of Return, our people, the Cloud Children, were defeated by a coalition of mortals and the Zida’ya, our own treacherous kin, at the Battle for Asu’a. The Storm King Ineluki returned to death, his plans in ruins. Our great Queen Utuk’ku survived, but fell into the keta-yi’indra, a healing sleep nearly as profound as death. It seemed to some of our people that the end of all stories had arrived, that the Great Song itself was coming to an end so that the universe could take its next age-long breath. “Many, many of our folk who had fought for their queen in a losing cause now departed from the southern lands with thought only of returning to their home in the north ahead of the vengeance of the mortals, who would not be content with their victory, but would strive to overthrow our mountain home and extinguish the last of the Cloud Children. “This was the moment when the People were nearly destroyed. But it was also a moment of extraordinary grace, of courage beyond the proudest demands we make upon ourselves. And as things have always been in the song of the People, in this, too, even the moments of greatest beauty were perfumed with destruction and loss. Thus it was for many warriors of the Order of Sacrifice when the Storm King fell, as well as those of other orders who had accompanied them to the enemy’s lands. The war was ended. Home was far. And the mortals were close behind, vermin from the filthiest streets of their cities, mercenaries and madmen who killed, not as we do, regretfully, but for the sheer, savage joy of killing.”
Each winner will receive a copy of High Stakes, the new Wild Cards novel edited by George R. R. Martin and Melinda M. Snograss, compliments of the folks at Tor Books. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
You can now get your hands on the digital edition of Peter Stenson's Fiend for only 1.99$ here.
In a nutshell, I'd say it's Trainspotting meets Shaun of the Dead. No doubt about it, this is one fucked up novel! If you have become blasé with the whole apocalyptic zombie angle, Fiend is definitely for you!
Here's the blurb:
When Chase Daniels first sees the little girl in umbrella socks tearing open the Rottweiler, he's not too concerned. As a longtime meth addict, he’s no stranger to horrifying, drug-fueled hallucinations. But as he and his fellow junkies soon discover, the little girl is no illusion. The end of the world really has arrived. The funny thing is, Chase’s life was over long before the apocalypse got here, his existence already reduced to a stinking basement apartment and a filthy mattress and an endless grind of buying and selling and using. He’s lied and cheated and stolen and broken his parents’ hearts a thousand times. And he threw away his only shot at sobriety a long time ago, when he chose the embrace of the drug over the woman he still loves. And if your life’s already shattered beyond any normal hopes of redemption…well, maybe the end of the world is an opportunity. Maybe it’s a last chance for Chase to hit restart and become the man he once dreamed of being. Soon he’s fighting to reconnect with his lost love and dreaming of becoming her hero among civilization’s ruins. But is salvation just another pipe dream? Propelled by a blistering first-person voice and featuring a powerfully compelling antihero, Fiend is at once a riveting portrait of addiction, a pitch-black love story, and a meditation on hope, redemption, and delusion—not to mention one hell of a zombie novel.
I was a big fan of Jasper Kent's The Danilov Quintet, so of course I was curious to see what he would write next. And this is how the author is pitching this one: Something rather different. No vampires, no Russians. Just a detective story set in 1930s Brighton. I haven't read it yet, but I invited Kent to put up an extract on the Hotlist to give us a taste of Late Whitsun. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe. You can also download it on the cheap through these links.
Here's the blurb:
Brighton, 1938. Charlie 'Big Bad' Woolf thought it would be easy money, and there's precious little of that for a private detective in a seaside town. It was just a trip up to London to hand over an envelope - a favour for his old partner, Alan O'Connor. But Woolf couldn't resist taking a peek inside. The pictures were unadulterated smut; a man and a girl in a hotel room. Blackmail, pure and simple - right up O'Connor's street. Woolf was happy to be rid of them, handing them over to a masked man in a London park. When he gets home, O'Connor's waiting for him, which is a surprise. The bigger surprise is that he's dead; a bullet through the eye. Woolf is the prime suspect, but when he discovers that the man in the photographs is a German diplomat and the blackmail is being run by MI5, things get more complicated. It seems obvious who killed O'Connor, but Woolf soon realizes that he's the only one who cares. With war looming, the good of the country counts for more than the arrest of a murderer. If he's to see the killer caught, Charlie Woolf must prove that the crime has little to do with the world of espionage ...
There are ways to make a girl look prettier; changes that no one can quite put their finger on, but are what the man – or occasionally the girl herself – is paying for. Some of it’s just tidying up, things she should have done for herself before she stepped outside, like neatening the line of the eyebrow or defining the lip more clearly. Some of it’s more major: a little off the nose – or, once in a while, on. The same for the chin. The easiest thing to improve is the complexion; you’re starting with a blank sheet there. Sometimes it’s just a case of giving her a better hat.
But you can’t go too far. It has to be the same face you started with – recognizable. You don’t want the prospective mother-in-law coming round and asking ‘Who’s that?’ only to be told, with shuffling feet, that it’s her own daughter. And you don’t want to end up with something so beautiful that it eclipses the original, a Galatea for the man to gawp at and wonder what might have been, or for the girl herself to turn away from whenever she sees it, knowing that reality is its poor reflection.
This girl wouldn’t take much work. She was a real looker. She knew it, and he knew it. They were engaged, so the ring on her finger declared, and recently too, judging by the way she rested her hands in her lap to ensure that everyone could see it. They were down from London, as were more than half the people who paraded along the Palace Pier that day, the last Saturday in May. So far, 1938 hadn’t been a great season. Easter had been late this year, and so Whitsun would not be with us until the beginning of June, the following weekend. But then the bank holiday would bring them to Brighton in droves. If the weather was good then even more would come, but today the sun was coy, just visible as a glowing disk through the light cloud, not strong enough to cast much of a shadow.
I was nearly done. I’d got the chin wrong, but only slightly, and it didn’t do to rub anything out – not when the punter could see you. The hardest bit had been getting a smile out of her. That wasn’t something you could guess the look of. It wasn’t that she was unhappy, but neither of them seemed the sort to show their emotions in public; they were above that. They’d probably only come down this particular weekend to avoid the riff-raff that Whitsun would bring to the town. Eventually her fiancé said something that coaxed a grin out of her, though she immediately tried to conceal it. After that, she’d given me a quiet, apologetic smile, and that’s what I used – not quite the Mona Lisa, but something close.
I changed her hat. The one she was wearing was a couple of years out of fashion. I was good with hats. I spent a lot of time looking at them in the window of Hanningtons, especially when the new season began. I gave her what they called a ‘sport’ hat – a kind of fedora for ladies. It suited her. I’d seen a photograph of Rita Hayworth in one, but they had them in the shops in Brighton too. Maybe, if she liked the drawing, she’d get her fiancé to buy her one. I often wondered if I shouldn’t be charging the milliners some sort of commission.
I signed the sketch at the bottom, ‘C. K. Woolf’. It would probably be hidden by the frame – if they bothered to frame it. I handed it to the girl and she smiled again. It was a shame she didn’t do it more often. Her chap gave me a curt nod and handed over a crown. It was what I’d put on the sign: ‘Portraits 5/-. Graduate of the Royal College of Art.’ It was true, but for the word ‘graduate’. Sometimes they felt inspired to offer me a little more, but this one didn’t. He barely even glanced at what he was paying for.
The couple continued on their way up the pier. They passed two or three other artists who tried to catch their interest, but then noticed what she was holding. Business wasn’t good, not at this time of year, nor this time of day. Whitsun would be different. But, for now, I took whatever trade I could drum up. I had the best pitch, close to the turnstiles.
A short girl of about twenty was hovering nearby, considering the sign. I smiled at her, but she didn’t seem bothered enough to look at the artist himself. She tugged the sleeve of the man beside her, who turned to look.
‘Makes a lovely memento of your day together,’ I said. ‘Only five shillings.’
‘We could get a photo for less,’ he replied, not taking the cigarette from his mouth to speak.
‘A photograph won’t bring out the young lady’s true beauty.’
The girl grinned broadly, demonstrating that she didn’t understand the full implication of what I was saying. She was no looker, but I could improve on reality. Her fellow, on the other hand, seemed to get the idea.
‘Will it take long?’ he asked.
‘Ten minutes,’ I said.
He nodded and the girl sat down on the little wooden chair opposite me. I began to work my magic. To be honest, he’d have done better to spend his five bob in Boots, getting her some make-up and the free advice that comes with it. Her face was sweet enough, but there was more she could have done with it, if only she had the nous. No sisters, I guessed, and a mother who didn’t approve of such things.
I didn’t make small talk – I’d learned not to over the years. It looked like flirting and, however much the subject might like it, it wasn’t she who was paying. Sometimes you’d get a couple of girls come down to Brighton together, and each take a turn in the chair. Then it was a different matter.
‘Very good!’ The words, laden with sincerity, came from behind me.
I didn’t need to look – and I didn’t want to. I recognized the voice.
‘Thanks,’ I said curtly.
‘It’s amazing what he can do, you know,’ O’Connor continued, still out of sight. He was addressing the girl now, or perhaps the man. Both looked up in his direction.
I raised my hand slightly. ‘Could you just keep still there?’ I said. It didn’t matter for the drawing, but there was a chance it would curtail the conversation. However flattering O’Connor’s words might have been to begin with, it wasn’t going to last.
‘You wouldn’t believe some of the material he has to work with.’ He sucked air through his teeth to emphasize the point. ‘But they all end up looking lovely on the page.’
The girl was still smiling, responding to O’Connor’s tone, rather than his words. The man had cottoned on quicker. His face had become still – not angry yet, but ready to have his suspicions of what O’Connor meant confirmed.
‘Real sow’s ears, some of them,’ the voice continued behind me with a slight laugh. There couldn’t be much doubt left for either of them now.
I swivelled round on my stool and looked up at him. ‘Take a hike, why don’t you, old man? I’m sure we can manage without hearing your opinions.’
He raised his hands apologetically. ‘All right, I’ll go!’ He tried to make himself sound hard-done-by. I turned back to my efforts and sensed him beginning to move away, but still he wouldn’t shut up. ‘Some people just can’t take a compliment, can they? She looks beautiful in that picture.’ He paused – his timing exquisite – then concluded, ‘You wouldn’t recognize her.’
The girl’s face fell into an expression that was every bit the classic mask of tragedy. She looked up at her suitor, who was already on the move, pulling up his sleeves as he strode towards O’Connor. I stood and got myself between the two of them, though why I cared I wasn’t sure. He pushed against me, though if he’d really been trying, he could easily have knocked me down.
‘What are you saying?’ he growled at O’Connor over my shoulder. O’Connor made no attempt at an explanation. I managed to push the younger man away until he was at arm’s length.
‘I can only apologize,’ I said. ‘You get a lot of his type on the pier. They’ve got nowhere to go during the day.’ The man calmed a little. ‘Look,’ I continued, ‘let me finish the drawing – no charge.’
I showed him what I’d done already; it was almost complete. He took it from me and stepped back a few paces, staring at it. Then he looked up at the girl and back to the drawing. ‘No,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘No, he’s right.’ He crumpled the paper and threw it on to the decking, then marched towards the turnstiles. The girl stood there, abandoned and insulted, wondering which of us to be more upset with. She looked at the retreating figure of her beau, then at O’Connor and then at me, her eyes blazing. I felt the sting of her hand slapping my cheek before I spotted any movement. She’d had to stretch up to reach my face, but still managed quite a blow. A few stars twinkled in the left of my field of vision, but it didn’t seem they would amount to anything serious. She turned and walked briskly after her man, but he was already off the pier. She broke into a run. I heard laughter behind me. O’Connor was leaning against the railing, grinning triumphantly, his belly stretching the buttons of his shirt. He offered me his hand to shake, but I didn’t take it.
‘How’s business, Big-Bad?’ he asked.
Walt Disney had a lot to answer for. O’Connor had starting calling me ‘Big-Bad’ five years before, when we were still working together. He would sing the song day in day out, cutting out the ‘the’ so it would make sense: ‘Who’s afraid of Big Bad Woolf?’ He hoped the name would catch on, but few others took it up. Still he persisted.
‘It was all right until you turned up.’
‘Five bob a pop? And how many of those do you get a day? I meant your other business.’
‘Not bad. How about you?’
‘Since we parted company, I’ve gone from strength to strength. More work than I can handle. Which is what I wanted to talk to you about.’
‘Not interested, thanks all the same.’ I sat back down and picked up my pad and pencil, looking around for likely clients.
‘Well, let me buy you a drink, then. For old times’ sake.’
‘They’ll be closed soon.’
I glanced up at the clock tower. He was right. It was well after two. There’d be a rush of trade on the pier when the pubs turned out, so now would be a good time for me to get a drink – especially a free one.
We headed across to the Royal Albion. There was an empty table in the corner of the bar, close to the window where we could look back out at the Palace Pier and the sea. A waiter came over quickly.
‘Tamplin’s, isn’t it?’ O’Connor asked. ‘A pint?’
‘Scotch,’ I said, ‘since you’re buying.’
‘Two Scotches,’ he instructed the waiter.
We sat in silence until the drinks arrived. O’Connor poured a dribble of water into his from the jug that came with them. He looked at me but I shook my head.
‘So how you been, Big-Bad?’
‘As well as ever.’
‘Still getting the headaches?’
‘Now and then.’ I glanced around the room as I spoke, not to take in the surroundings, but to see if anything else was there, creeping in from the side. The slap I’d received on the pier probably wasn’t enough to start anything – but I was due.
‘Never stopped you working, though, did they?’
I was bored already, and the whisky wasn’t going to last me long. ‘What’s this about, O’Connor?’
‘Why do you never call me “Al”?’
I couldn’t picture him as an American gangster, and besides, his name was Alan, not Alphonse. Though I could hardly throw stones on that score myself. ‘What’s it about?’ I repeated.
‘I was wondering if you needed a little work.’
‘Not your kind of work.’
‘I’m a detective, just like you … when you’re not drawing pictures on the pier.’
‘We investigate different things.’
He shrugged, tricky though that was with his corpulent body wedged into a hotel armchair. ‘All I’m looking for is a courier.’ He reached into his case and brought out a large brown envelope. ‘I need this taken up to a man in London.’
‘Try the Royal Mail.’
He shook his head. ‘They might take a peek.’
‘And I wouldn’t?’
‘Maybe, but you’d deliver it anyway.’
I tried to judge what might be in there. I could make a good guess, but that wouldn’t quite explain why he refused to trust it to the post. ‘Why not go yourself?’ I asked. ‘It’s only London.’
He paused, choosing his words. ‘I don’t want him to know who it’s from.’
‘So he’d recognize you?’
O’Connor nodded. ‘But not you.’
‘What’s it worth?’ I asked, taking another sip.
‘In return, he’ll give you the sum of fifty pounds, in cash.’
I scarcely needed to pretend to choke. ‘Fifty quid? For a delivery?’
‘For content and delivery. You can keep ten.’
It was still a good fee. ‘How do you know I won’t keep it all?’
‘You’re an honest man. That’s why we don’t work together anymore.’
‘But you’re happy to work with me now?’
‘That depends. Are you happy to work for me?’
‘I’ll think about it,’ I said. ‘When do you need to know?’
‘It has to be delivered tonight.’
I looked at the envelope. He was holding it by opposite corners, twirling it between his fingers. I could see no name or address on it. I reached out my hand and the rotation stopped.
‘You agree, then?’ he asked.
‘I said I’ll think about it.’
‘Then I’d best keep this for now.’ He slid the envelope back into his case and brought out a notebook. He scribbled something on a page, which he then tore out and handed to me. ‘Call me on this number,’ he said. ‘Make it before seven or I’ll find someone else.’
‘Why not just find someone else, anyway?’
He smiled. ‘Maybe I will. Call me and you’ll find out.’
He downed what was left of his drink and stood up. It would have been impressive but for the way the chair rose with him for a few inches. He pushed his hands against the arms and it dropped back on to the carpeted floor with a quiet thud. He straightened his tie and headed across the bar to the door. I finished my Scotch, but remained seated, staring out of the window. Soon O’Connor reappeared outside. He crossed the road as if heading back on to the pier, but then glanced around furtively and squeezed into one of the red telephone boxes just beside the ice-cream kiosk, his backside preventing the door from quite closing behind him.
After I left the Royal Albion, I went back to my pitch on the pier. As I’d expected, business picked up during the afternoon, but then it began to rain. I packed up soon after four. I didn’t have much to take with me – the chair and my stool folded up nice and small, and the sketch pad was no weight. Even so, the rain persuaded me to take a tram. I popped into the newsagent’s and bought a copy of the Argus, along with a few other things, then walked the last few yards home. I trotted up the steps to the front door, trying to avoid looking at the chequered pattern of tiles that covered them. As usual for that time of day, the door wasn’t locked. Once inside, I shouted.
‘That you, Mr Woolf?’ Her voice came from the kitchen at the end of the hallway. There were few other places she was likely to be.
‘Indeed it is.’ I put my head around the door. Her hands were plunged in a large mixing bowl, her forearms coated in flour. ‘Any telephone calls?’
‘Your mother rang. We had a good long chat.’
‘She wanted to remind you you’re going there for lunch on Wednesday. She wants to know if you’re bringing anyone.’
‘Well, are you?’
‘Am I what?’
It would have been easy just to tell her, but it was none of her business. ‘Any other calls?’
‘Your friend Mr O’Connor.’
‘What did he want?’ I hardly needed to ask.
‘He didn’t say. He didn’t even leave his name, but I knew it was him.’
‘Thanks, Mrs Croft.’ I stepped back into the hallway.
‘Will you be in for dinner?’
It was a good question. I still hadn’t decided about O’Connor’s offer. ‘No, thank you. I’ll find something for myself,’ I shouted back. Perhaps I had decided.
I went upstairs and unlocked the door to my rooms. My office was at the front of the house, facing south, so even on a cloudy day like today it was still bright. This was where I received my clients, when I had any. Two other doors led off to my private rooms – a bedroom and a living room. I dumped the two seats and the rest of what I’d been carrying in a corner, then sat down at the desk. I opened my diary where the strip of gold braid marked the current week, then turned the page. Only one word was written there, under Wednesday: Mum. I could hardly count her as a client. I turned the page again. The Whitsun bank holiday was printed in there on the Monday, but there was nothing that I’d filled in. I didn’t bother to look any further. I had no work coming. Not the kind of work I wanted.
I’d been right in what I said to O’Connor: we investigated different things. The things he concerned himself with happened every day; for me it was once in a blue moon. And so he got the cases and I didn’t. When we’d worked as partners there had been more of a mixture, but he’d always been keener to deal with the simple, lucrative stuff. And that, in a word, meant divorces. O’Connor was a genius at finding evidence of adultery, but my heart wasn’t in it. That was why we’d gone our separate ways – that and a few other things. His business was thriving, from what I’d heard – not least from his own lips. I hadn’t been offered a case in weeks.
There wasn’t much room for a private detective in Brighton, not between the police and the gangs. The police dealt with the normal crime, the offences you’d find in any town: burglary, assault, the occasional murder. But Brighton also had the fun crimes, the crimes that ensnared willing victims: gambling, drinking, prostitution. That was what the tourists came down from London for – some of them, at least. And those things didn’t just happen; they needed organization. If people got out of line, they had to be dealt with. Brighton Borough Police didn’t want to get involved and so the gangs policed themselves. Sometimes there was an overlap of jurisdiction, and that would lead to trouble, but it meant that there wasn’t much room in the middle for a privateer like me.
So in my case it was mostly persons gone missing, or the occasional blackmail. And there’d been none of either for a while. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the phone number that O’Connor had given me. Ten pounds was good money. I’d sold three drawings on the pier that day – fifteen shillings’ worth. It wasn’t that I was desperate for income. Mum was always willing to give me some, but that would mean she’d have won. And there was more to it than that. Ten pounds wasn’t just good money – it was ridiculous. There was more to this than being a simple delivery boy; more to it than an envelope full of photographs of some rich husband caught in flagrante delicto to be delivered into the hands of the aggrieved wife’s solicitor. O’Connor could have done that for himself. So perhaps it would lead on to something more interesting: a real case.
I went back down to the hallway. From the kitchen I could hear Mrs Croft singing to herself, picking a new key for almost every phrase. ‘Isn't it romantic? Music in the night; a dream that can be heard. Isn't it romantic?’ The telephone was on a stand at the bottom of the stairs. I picked up the receiver and dialled the number. It rang three times and then a woman answered.
‘Mrs O’Connor?’ I began. I’d never used her first name. I wasn’t even sure I could remember it.
‘Who’s that?’ She sounded annoyed.
‘It’s Woolf. Charlie Woolf.’
‘Who?’ It must have been a bad line – she couldn’t have forgotten me.
‘Is Alan there?’ I remembered that she, like me, was loathe to abbreviate his name.
‘Al!’ she shouted, turning away from the receiver. It seemed I’d remembered wrongly, or times had changed.
Moments later another voice spoke. ‘Hullo?’
‘O’Connor?’ I said. ‘It’s me. Is that job still going?’