Dracula

Dracula book coverTitle: Dracula

Author: Bram Stoker

Summary: We are in Transylvania; and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things.

Earnest and naive solicitor Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to organise the estate of the infamous Count Dracula at his crumbling castle. Finding himself imprisoned, Harker experiences all manner of supernatural horrors until he eventually escapes to be reunited with his fiancee Mina. Meanwhile in England, Mina’s friend Lucy has been bitten and Mina herself is under threat from the Count as he attempts to quell his appetite for human blood.

Arguably the most enduring Gothic novel of the 19th Century, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is as chilling today in its depiction of the vampire world and its exploration of Victorian values as it was at its time of publication.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: I started reading Dracula way back at the beginning of May with thousands of other people via Dracula Daily. An email subscription that sends you the journals and letters the book consists of in chronological order on the day they’re written. It was a really fun and well-paced way of reading what can seem like quite an intimidating novel. The shit posts, memes, and general community fun that it inspired on tumblr in particular was a wonderful companion to the reading.

There are several storylines in the book that gradually converge, which is something I very much enjoy in fiction. Seeing these characters that I’ve grown fond of meeting and worlds colliding. I mean, the circumstances of a blood-sucking creature of the night attempting to recruit isn’t the most wonderful way to begin a friendship, but they make it work!

My good friend Jonathan Harker is our first main character, and it was easy to like him. He’s noting all these strange and unique things about his host, Count Dracula, but brushing them off while I’m there mentally screaming at him about the very obvious elephant vampire in the room. My two very favourite characters are Mina, Jonathan’s wife, and Van Helsing. They are honestly the only two with any sense and respect each other a lot. And okay, I have a soft spot for Quincey whose head is “in plane with the horizon” but the four young men are mostly just muscle and money.

Despite that, though, there is a fair amount of misogyny. “Poor Madam Mina, we must protect her” etc, etc. As if they would have got anywhere without her, honestly. It’s certainly a product of its time, though, and Mina is a badass, so I’m willing to not hold it against the book… too much.

What I will hold against it, though, is how flipping verbose it is. Long paragraphs of overly wordy dialogue (mostly from Van Helsing; he loves the sound of his own voice, and I love intelligent fictional characters with an ego), which was so unnecessarily dense that it has to be summed up by another character afterwards.

The thing I enjoyed most about the book were the details that we now take for granted in stories about vampires, and seeing where all these tropes and cliches first came from. Sleeping in coffins, transforming into a bat, having to be invited in, an aversion to garlic. And seeing the details that have changed over the years into other things. Daylight being fatal for vampires, when in fact Dracula walks around fine during the day but is simply at his most powerful during the night; holy water when in the book they use holy wafers (which is objectively hilarious).

I actually fell behind with the Dracula Daily emails at the start of October, when my life got busy and the entries got long. I ended up reading my physical copy of the book to finish it, as seeing how much was left help me motivate and pace myself.

My biggest critisism, towards the end of the book as Mina was travelling through Romania towards Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, was Stoker’s missed opportunity for a callback to Jonathan’s original journey at the start of the book. Imagine it. Mina partaking in local cuisine and thinking to herself: “So this is the paprika Jonathan wrote of in his letters… it’s not that spicy.”

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The Sundial

Book cover of The Sundial by Shirley JacksonTitle: The Sundial

Author: Shirley Jackson

Summary: From the sky and from the ground and from the sea there is danger; tell them in the house…

Mrs Holloran has inherited the great Holloran house on the death of her son, much to the disgust of her daughter-in-law, the delight of her wicked granddaughter and the confusion of the rest of the household. But when the original owner – long dead – arrives to announce the world is ending and only the house and its occupants will be saved, they find themselves in a nightmare of strange marble statues, mysterious guests and the beautiful, unsettling Holloran sundial which seems to be at the centre of it all.

Shirley Jackson blends sinister family politics and apocalyptic terror in a masterpiece of the macabre.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I have a shelf full of Shirley Jackson novels, but similar to my collection of John Wyndham and William Golding books I’ve been rationing them, knowing there won’t be any more. But I decided it was time to pick another one up.

It was the blurb that made me choose to start reading The Sundial. Shirley Jackson writing an apocalyptic horror? Yes, please. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that, because as with every Shirley Jackson novel it is more of a psychological horror.

The Sundial is about a mixed group of well off people living together in ‘the big house’. There are friends, there are family, but no one really seems to like anyone else. When most of the residents find themselves facing eviction from the house, one of them suddenly has a visit from her long-dead father to tell her the end of the world is coming. It’s okay, though, he built the house and those that remain in it will be safe.

So begins the chaos of a group of people begrudgingly entertaining a middle aged lady’s frightened hallucinations and the slow meander they take into believing them, stockpiling supplies, saying goodbye to everything they knew, and readying the house for the coming end of days and ushering in of the new world.

What makes this story for me are the characters. I didn’t like any of them, really, though they would annoy me more or less in turn. But the way they hate and interact with each other was highly entertaining. The standouts are Mrs Holloran, the new owner of the house whose malicious ego knows no bounds; Aunt Fanny, who is proud and lonely and clinging to the visions of her father; Fancy, a sheltered and only slightly homicidal young girl; and Essex, a not-so-young-anymore man who pays for his keep with backstabbing and gossip.

How they all manipulate each other, show open animosity, but still somehow mostly get along is… fascinating. And seeing them on this journey to accepting the world is going to end, what that means to them, and how they hope the new world and they themselves will be changed… It’s equal parts meaningful and ludicrous and I loved it.

My favourite part of the book was Julia, one of the young women, trying to leave. She had travel arrangements made for her and found herself on a(n unexpectedly solo) journey out of town. With the creepy taxi driver and her disappearance into the fog reads like a slasher horror. It could have been a self-contained short story and I wanted more of it.

For a psychological end-of-the-world horror story, I perhaps laughed a little too much, but as the reader I could enjoy the comedy in those moments the characters couldn’t. What I could also see, that the characters couldn’t, is that they were shielding themselves from the outside world and whatever catastrophe might be coming, when all along the real horrors lay inside the house with them.

Disturbing the Beast

distrubing the beast smallTitle: Disturbing the Beast

Author: Various

Summary: The best of women’s weird fiction

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: I love short stories. I love weird fiction. I love women-led narratives. Of course I supported this book on kickstarter. It took me a while to get around to reading it, but that’s because I have a lot of unread books, and also because I haven’t been reading much these past couple of years.

I should have loved this book. And I did love some of the stories. Dolly, about a woman who was cloned to re-live the life of the girl she was cloned from, and Burning Girl, about a literal girl on fire, were stand-out stories for me. They both explored the characters’ lives, freedoms, and autonomy (or lack thereof). Their sense of self and of hiding part of themselves for the benefit of others.

The concepts of these two stories in particular spoke to me, but they also stood apart from the rest for another reason. The women in these stories and their plots weren’t defined by or dependent on the men in them.

Almost (almost) every other story in the book included women whose lives and choices were dependant on and affected by men. A woman who consumes men, a woman whose lineage descended from an act of sexual violence, women literally knitting themselves husbands, a woman whose touch becomes electric following the death of one man and returns to normal after she saves the life of another man.

These stories weren’t bad, but I am quite tired of women’s stories, women’s lives, and women’s purpose being defined by the men in them.

One of the stories that I loved and couldn’t stop reading was Wrapped, about a female Egyptologist who discovers the tomb of a lost female pharaoh. The way the story of the pharaoh and the Egyptologist run parallel, like history repeating itself, was well crafted and left me with strong emotions. The men in the story were used to illustrate the inherent sexism and control women have experienced for centuries, rather than any driving force or meaning to the main character as an individual–they helped or hindered her, they did not define her.

While I would certainly look out for stories and books by several of the authors in the future, overall the collection as a whole feels just slightly amateurish. That’s not a criticism, though. Simply an observation. An observation I think would benefit the reader and the stories if you know in advance.

Doctor Sleep

Title: Doctor Sleep

Author: Stephen King

Summary: Following a childhood haunted by terrifying events at the Overlook Hotel, Danny Torrance has been drifting for decades.

Finally, he settles into a job at a nursing home where he draws on his remnant ‘shining’ power to help people pass on.

Then he meets Abra Stone, a young girl with the brightest ‘shining’ ever seen. But her gift is attracting a tribe of paranormals. They may look harmless, old and devoted to their Recreational Vehicles, but The True Knot live off the ‘steam’ that children like Abra produce.

Now Dan must confront his old demons as he battles for Abra’s soul and survival…

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3.5/5

Review: I re-read The Shining before i dived into this book, and I’m honestly not sure if that was a good thing to do or not. Immediately it’s obvious that King’s writing style has improved in the years between books. It’s just more natural and I was instantly drawn into the world, the familiar characters, and the aftermath of The Shining. My hopes were quickly set quite high.

The Shining is a tough act to follow, and obviously King knew that. Doctor Sleep felt quieter, to me… and I liked that. It’s not trying to out shine (pun intended!) its predecessor, but do something different while expanding on the supernatural lore of ‘the shining’, as well as the nature of addiction. And the first half of the book had me hooked. Seeing Danny Torrence as a boy, dealing with the trauma from The Overlook and the ghosts that followed him (figuratively and literally); growing up and dealing with the trauma less-well, turning to drink. The story really gets going when Dan finds himself in Frazier, knowing this is where he needs to be.

This book has a lot more characters than The Shining. The Shining was limited to the Torrances–a family of three–and a few supporting characters(/ghosts), but Doctor Sleep has Dan, Dan’s friends and colleagues, Abra and her family, as well as the numerous members of the True Knot. They are a lot to keep track of at first, but the main players soon stand out. Billy, the first person Dan meets in Frazier, was an instant favourite for me. He was just so pure and lovely, and i was immediately thinking, “he’d better survive this book!” Another favourite was Concetta, Abra’s grandmother. A poet, a strong and independent woman, and just so level headed and no-nonsense.

Less-great aspects to the characters were the fact that it was the men who see all the action. It’s Dan, his AA BFF, and Abra’s dad who road trip around and confront some bad guys. All the friends Dan makes in Frazier are blokes. We get Abra, who’s strong and sassy and takes no shit. I loved her. But we also have her mum, who’s shown as being very emotional and reactive, compared to her husband. Even Wendy, Dan’s mum and determined fighter from The Shining, is reduced to a woman who needs to be protected by her young son and who smokes herself to death… she deserved so much more. And there’s Rose the Hat and Snakebite Andi… the crazy evil ladies. And of course at least one of them needs a sexual abuse back story that’s passed off as character development. In fact there were several points were all the female characters (bar Concetta; she was too old, but yes including 14-year-old Abra) were unnecessarily sexualised. Might have just been a throw away line… no big deal, you might say… expect there’s no point to it! It’s a throw away line with no purpose but to frustrate the shit out of me and give a hard side-eye the author.

As much as it was interesting to learn more about ‘the shining’ and Abra’s abilities, what I really loved most about the book was the exploration of the human horrors. So, very much what i liked about The Shining, now i come to think about it. Dan’s alcoholism, the depths he finds himself in and his struggle to claw himself out, his AA journey and the friends he makes along the way, and most of all the secret he keeps for so, so long and how it ate at him. It was that story line and its conclusion that i was most invested in and most emotional about.

The True Knot were a fascinating new aspect to the book. An old group (in more ways than one) of people with certain abilities themselves, who travel around the country and feed off of the ‘steam’ that children with ‘the shine’ possess. Rose the Hat, their leader, was especially intriguing and equal parts wonderful and terrible. The group’s entire history and way of life was interesting, and I would love to have read more, perhaps got to know a few more characters. Where the True Knot fell down for me, is as the horrifying bad guys. Yes, they were the bad guys, and yes, they were horrifying… but at no point did i think they’d have a chance of winning. As the reader, i know we know the bad guys aren’t going to win, but the stakes have to be high enough that i worry for the good guys. I was never worried for the good guys. Splitting the group up, a botched kidnapping, along with Rose the Hat’s constant poor decisions and gradual decline into rage and irrationality… the stakes were never high enough.

When i re-read The Shining i had to put the book down and take breaks because it made me so anxious and only increased the tension with every page. In contrast, i found myself putting Doctor Sleep down and not picking it back up for several days at a time. I was enjoying it, sure, but the successful outcome for the good guys was so clearly inevitable that the ride to get there wasn’t that enticing.

The last niggling thing… Abra’s emotions. The rage and the strength were clear throughout the book, and that alone would be interesting to explore. That would make Dan’s advise to her at the end of the book perfect and fitting. No, the thing that niggles me is that smile, those cocky lines, and her enjoyment. She didn’t simply get angry and need to break something… she got angry and wanted to hurt someone. By about two thirds of the way through the book alarm bells were ringing for me. Abra was so, so powerful, but every time she grinned, got sassy, or expressed pleasure in her actions I recoiled a little bit. Honestly, Abra was the scariest thing about this book. I really thought that would have been addressed more than it was at the end of the book. If King isn’t planning another sequel that deals with a grow up Abra turned bad, then this book really dropped the ball on her character.

Overall I did enjoy this book, mostly Dan’s story and battle with alcoholism, and seeing him make a life for himself. I would be interested in another book with an adult Abra… to see how adulthood treats her, like we’ve now seen for Dan. For all the things i’ve moaned about, the things i loved about the book, i loved.

The Shining

Title: The Shining

Author: Stephen King

Summary: Danny is only five years old but in the words of old Mr Hollorann he is a ‘shiner’, aglow with psychic voltage. When his father becomes caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, Danny’s visions grow out of control.

As winter closes in and blizzards cut them off, the hotel seems to develop a life of its own. It is meant to be empty. So who is the lady in room 217 and who are the masked guests going up and down in the elevator? And why do the hedges shaped like animals seem so alive?

Somewhere, somehow, there is an evil force in the hotel–and that too is being to shine…

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I first read this book about 15 years ago. I loved it then and (spoiler:) i love it now. I decided to re-read it ahead of reading Doctor Sleep for the first time, and I’m really glad i did. I remembered part of the book really well, but other parts were a total blur. It was wonderful to re-visit the scenes i loved enough to remember, and the story was still suspenseful enough because I couldn’t recall all the details of what happened.

The main thing I remembered from when I first read the book was how genuinely scary it was. The particular moments that stayed with me had been the topiary animals and the fire hose. On this re-read those moments were still scary, but there were more scary moments. The tunnel in the snowy playground, the lift whirling into life in the middle of the night, the wasps. But more than that, I think this time I had more appreciation for the more human horrors. Jack’s alcoholism (and, underneath that, his deep insecurities), his father’s abusiveness, his mother’s passivity, and Wendy’s history with her mother and how she could see that playing out again in herself. As much as this book has horror and supernatural elements, it has human issues at its heart.

I loved all of the characters, to some extent. Danny was so smart and pure for his five years, with this psychic ability he didn’t understand. In the hands of an adult with more information this whole story could have ended much quicker… or have not taken place at all. Having all the knowledge and so little of the understanding in the hands of a child feels heavy and meaningful. Dick Hollorann was a clear favourite. He was so genuine and lovely, instantly connecting with Danny and having the drive to do everything he could for a kid he’d met for a hour several months ago. Wendy. Wendy i love, and i love her growth over the book from “Danny’s mum” and “Jack’s wife” to a strong, smart woman kicking as much arse as she needed to to keep herself and her son safe. From flashbacks and early stages of the book, she seemed too complacent and reluctant to rock the boat. But when shit gets real she steps up without question and does what she needs to.

And then, of course, there’s Jack. I love who Jack wants to me, who he has the potential to be, and who he almost is right at the start of the book. As the story developed, I slowly began to hate Jack… but in a way that I loved and was really well done. He begins in a good place–despite some poor choices ending him up in a difficult situation, he seems ready to move on and start again. He obviously loves his wife and kid and wants to do right by them. But as we slowly learn more, exactly, of Jack’s past and as the time spent isolated in the hotel increases, he becomes more and more of a horrible, self-centred, egotistical maniac.

Now, the thing i love most about this book is the possibilities. There are never, really, any definitive answers. I can see several possible reasons for what happens in this book… and i accept them all. One, the Overlook and the evilness contained within it completely manipulated Jack and forced him into the actions he took. Two, the Overlook was able to manipulate Jack and get him to do the things he did because Jack already had the potential to be that person; to some degree he thought and felt those horrible things and the hotel then amplified them and drove him to depths he might never had reached without its influence. Three, the Overlook has very little or no supernatural evil spirits and it was all simply cabin fever that drove Jack mad and induced a group hallucination. And really, anywhere along that scale. There are details and moments that could point in favour of one explanation or another, but I really don’t think there is anything to state definitively what happened. And i LOVE that. I could play devil’s advocate and argue any of the options and I would enjoy doing so.

Another thing that struck me was a line from Grady, a previous winter caretaker who murdered his family several years before:

“Your wife would object to that very strongly, Mr Torrence. And she appears to be… somewhat stronger than we imagined. Somewhat more resourceful. She certainly seems to have gotten the better of you.”
Grady tittered.
“Perhaps, Mr Torrence, we should have been dealing with her all along.”

This actually made me pause and think… “What if they had?” What if, for whatever reason, the Overlook had got into Wendy’s head instead of Jack’s. Manipulated Wendy into throwing away the snowmobile battery and murdering her family? And again, i can imagine multiple possibilities, all of which i could see happening. One, Wendy is less easy to manipulate because she doesn’t have as many underlying issues as Jack, and so she throws off the hotel’s influence more easily. Two, a similar situation as with Jack; she is manipulated into these malicious acts and causes some harm but is ultimately beaten by Jack’s determination to save his son, Hollorann’s rescue, and Danny’s love. Three, Wendy is stronger and more resourceful than Jack, simply poisoning their food or slitting their throats in their sleep. I would actually love to read a re-telling of this book with the Overlook manipulating Wendy instead.

Overall i really loved the pacing of the book. How much it managed to keep me on edge, even when i knew how it was all going to end–i couldn’t remember enough of the details to figure out exactly how they got there. At points the tension was so high i had to take a break, putting the book down while i did something else for 10 minutes. The suspense was also nicely broken up by chapters showing Hollorann’s journey across the country back to them at the Overlook. He was trying to get to them as fast as he could, but the anxiety of his travel did not match that of the events unfolding at the hotel. Slowly though, as Hollorann got closer and closer, his storyline also became more tense, until the last eight chapters of the book had me strung out on a knife edge. I loved it.

Lastly, the only real reason this book didn’t get five stars is because, let’s be honest, King is not the best writer. There are a few issues that I can’t ignore. Mild, but still utterly present… sexism, racism, unnecessary and awkward sexual interactions, and generally clumsy, cliched literary devices. All (mostly) forgiven with an eyeroll and acknowledgement that to me he is a good-but-not-great author.

I do have other thoughts on the book, but they are mostly tied into its relationship and comparison to the 1980 film adaptation. So many other thoughts, in fact, that before I start reading Doctor Sleep, I have decided to re-watch the film and spend some time writing a “book vs film” analysis. Just like reviews of the book and the film, comparisons have likely been done to death… but i just have so many opinions on this, that i need to get them down on page and share them. So, if you have any strong opinions about The Shining, stay tuned for that soon!

The Wheel of Osheim

Title: The Wheel of Osheim

Author: Mark Lawrence

Summary: All the horrors of Hell stand between Snorri Ver Snagason and the rescue of his family, if indeed the dead can be rescued.

For Jalan Kendeth, getting out alive and with Loki’s key is all that matters. The key can open any lock an possession of it may enable Jal to return to the three Ws that have been the core of his debauched life: wine, women and wagering.

But the Wheel of Osheim is turning ever faster, and it will crack the world unless it’s stopped. When the end of all things looms, and there’s nowhere to run, even the worst coward must find new answers.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: From my review of the previous book in this series, The Liar’s Key:

“[I’m] very keen to read the last in The Red Queen’s War series. I hope Jal continues to acknowledge his own skills, courage, and caring. I hope he and Snorri get into some wonderfully dangerous adventures. I hope he kills Edris Dean with his own goddamn sword. I hope he just generally saves the fucking day, honestly.”

Let me tell you… I was not disappointed.

Jalan is just… one of my favourite characters ever, actually. His self-deception is like nothing I’ve ever seen. He’s convinced himself he’s a coward who’d give up his nearest and dearest to save his own skin, while continuing to never, ever do that, and he’s just so likeable for it. Seeing him really, truly come into his own and show people what he’s capable of (even if he’s not one of those people) was satisfying to see. And Snorri… the big, beautiful, bozo that is Snorri. Continuing to see and believe only the best in Jal, being so righteous and noble and good, and just having the biggest heart and the loudest roar.

The friendship between Jal and Snorri really shines in this book, after seeing them bond over so many adventures in the previous books. And the fact that they’re not together for a portion of the book only made me appreciate their interactions and how they work together all the more. It also was wonderful having some of Snorri’s story when he was alone, and getting to see what Snorri really thinks of Jal and no i did not tear up with happiness about it, shut up.

Unfortunately Kara and Hennan still feeling too much like tacked on extras and plot devices, rather than fully realised characters. Kara still comes across as very suspicious and not wholly likable, which disappointed me. Hennan is too quiet and not utilised in enough (or in any?) ways until he proves useful towards the climax of the book (see: plot device). It was nice getting to appreciate more characters that had been painted as worthless or horrible by Jal, most notably the genuine connection Jal finally recognises and acknowledges with his father and brothers. The Red Queen continues to be a kick arse and formidable woman, along with her twin siblings. I loved Jal letting his mouth run, standing up to her and instead of giving her the key, giving her what for! The sudden respect that earns him from her, and how that leads and affects the rest of the story is brilliant.

Talking of the story… it is non-stop. What Liar’s Key lacked in a plot to keep the book moving, this book improved on tenfold. There is never a dull moment… almost to the point of wanting a dull moment. Almost. It was unnerving at first, Jal reappearing from Hell without Snorri and no explanation. I was worried about Snorri until his magnificent reappearance that literally had me whooping. There was just no let up… Jal’s meeting with Jorg, his rescue of Lisa, how he conclusively dealt with Maeres Allus, how he earned everyone’s respect by being a freaking incredible general (after convincing himself he’d done a half-arsed job of it up until they were attacked)… just. So much. And that’s only in the first half.

There was a lot packed into this book, and even though I knew there would be confrontations for Jal with Edris Dean and his Unborn sister… when they came they surprised me. With so much going on I stopped thinking about what might happen and just needed to keep reading to actually find out. I was a bit ‘meh’ on the ending of Lawrence’s first series The Broken Empire, but this one was brilliant. It was satisfying with enough possibility to keep me guessing. It had relief without compromising on emotion and genuinely high stakes. It was pretty perfect.

Other than the witty, clever, and endlessly quotable writing, the genre of these book is my absolute favourite thing about them. It’s a perfect science fiction and fantasy meld. I love it. Set a thousand years after a nuclear war that happens in our conceivable future, it hints at a history and technology the characters don’t fully understand. I had so much fun trying to figure out what Jal was describing, because they don’t have a clue. A white cube with “ghosts” inside. The builder’s wheel that’s been turning all this time and bringing magic into the world. And my personal favourite… a freaking iron pineapple!! This is such a good, niche genre, and I want 100 more books written in this vein immediately.

I read this book in a week which, along with Prince of Thorns, is the quickest I’ve read any of the books in either series. I could barely stop reading it, and when I did I was only thinking about reading it. It’s incredible how everything ties up with The Broken Empire series and I really want to re-read both series with the insight I now have. Of course, who has time for that when I need to be getting on with the next series?

The Liar’s Key

Title: The Liar’s Key

Author: Mark Lawrence

Summary: The Red Queen has set her players on the board…

Winter is keeping Prince Jalan Kendeth far from the luxuries of his southern palace. And although the North may be home to his companion, the warrior Snorri ver Snagason, he is just as eager to leave.

For the Viking is ready to challenge all of Hel to bring his wife and children back into the living world. He has Loki’s key – now all he needs is to find the door.

As all wait for the ice to unlock its jaws, the Dead King plots to claim what was so nearly his – the key into the world – so that the dead can rise and rule.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3.5/5

Review: I read and loved Prince of Fools last year, and I was determined to read this series quicker than I managed to read The Broken Empire series. Which is why The Liar’s Key was the first book i picked up this year. Lawrence’s writing is always clever and an effortless mix of humour and heart. This book was no different.

Our main character, Jalan, was just as much a delightful prick as he was in the first book. Self-declared squeamish coward, but with so much self-deceit he almost has no idea who he really is. He continues to do brave and noble things, while convincing himself he’s selfishly just trying to make his own life easier. I kind of adore him. Snorri is… still very much Snorri. Self-assured, headstrong, and… the regular kind of strong. Dragging his friends across Europe on a dangerous quest to open the door to Hel and find his dead family. Tuttugu i didn’t remember clearly from the first book, but i adored in this book. A kind, soft heart following his countryman and friend into dangerous situations because it’s the right thing to do.

We also get a couple of new characters. Kara, a witch who joins their journey and helps them along the way, but who clearly has something to hide. I loved having a main female character join the group, and i loved her immunity to Jal’s “charms” and advances. Her secrets and unclear motivations were intriguing, but also made me wary of her. Hennan, a young boy they pick up almost randomly and pointlessly along the way… for a long time he was a bit part, barely speaking and adding nothing to the plot. But he grew on me by the end.

Now, this book took me the entirety of January to read. That’s not usual. Most other of Lawrence’s books i’ve finished in 2-3 weeks. But this one… this one took a while to really get going for me. The first half… nothing really happens. Nothing of larger consequence, anyway. It’s a meander. A travel blog. They get into some hairy situations, meet a few folk along the way… but there is nothing significant driving the plot. Only Snorri’s desire to use the key to open the door to Hel and find his family… which isn’t shared by our main character… or any other character. This led to there not being much drive for me to pick up the book to keep reading. I still read regularly, but I didn’t read much each time–only one chapter or less.

I really enjoyed Jal’s dream-jaunts into his family’s past. Seeing his grandmother, the Red Queen, as a young girl so ruthless and ready for action. His great aunt and uncle by their sister’s side, the three of them an almost unstoppable force, even at such a young age. Those snippets gave Jal and the reader so much more information about the war being fought, the motivations, and actions, and just how long the game has been in play.

It wasn’t until about halfway through that things really seemed to pick up some. When their journey brought them to Red March, and Jal saw his home town as the end of his travels. Of course, as the reader, it was obviously anything but. But seeing him trying to slip back into his old life, while finding nothing quite the same as it was and not deriving the same pleasures from it… that was brilliant to watch unfold. The story culminates in Florence, and the last 200 pages were where this book really shone for me–I couldn’t read those last 10 chapters quick enough!

As much as a lot of this book seemed too slow and meandering, it ended on such a high, with a great final showdown of wits and smarts and conversation. It has me very keen to read the last in The Red Queen’s War series. I hope Jal continues to acknowledge his own skills, courage, and caring. I hope he and Snorri get into some wonderfully dangerous adventures. I hope he kills Edris Dean with his own goddamn sword. I hope he just generally saves the fucking day, honestly.

Prince of Fools

Title: Prince of Fools

Author: Mark Lawrence

Summary: I’m a liar and a cheat and a coward, but I will never, ever, let a friend down. Unless of course not letting them down requires honesty, fair play or bravery.

The Red Queen is dreaded by the kings of the Broken Empire as they dread no other.

Her grandson Jalan Kendreth–womaniser, gambler and all-out cad–is tenth in line to the thrown. While his grandmother shapes the destiny of millions, Prince Jalan pursues his debauched pleasures.

Until, that is, he gets entangled with Snorri ver Snagason, a huge Norse axeman, and dragged against his will to the icy north…

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: After loving Lawrence’s first series set in The Broken Empire, of course i was going to read the second. I’m just surprised it took me so long.

I just really love this setting. This is a fantasy story, with necromancers, magic, and horse riding… but it’s set in a Europe that’s 1000 years post a nuclear war. There’s a trusty map at the start of the book, but the shapes and names are recognisable and familiar. I get so much more into the world of this book, knowing it’s this world–or at least, what this would could become. It has fantasy themes and tropes, but when they are set in a foundation of speculative science (pseudo as it is), it excites and interests me infinitely more that straight fantasy.

Almost immediately i was reminded just how brilliant Lawrence’s writing is. It reads as if it was effortlessly written (though was no doubt anything but), with quick wit and turns of phrase dropped is so smoothly it might slip past without you noticing. But i loved to notice. At least once in every page or two was a sentence or a paragraph that stood out as just damn good writing. I underlined and posted to tumblr so many quotes. Also had to stop and read several out to my partner, who didn’t really care but indulged me anyway.

So okay, the characters. There are two main characters: Jalan and Snorri. I adored them both. Snorri the affable and imposing Norseman, making friends just as easily as he breaks bones. He’s both the more serious and the more light-hearted of the two. And Jal, our anti-hero of sorts. I found him fascinating. A self-proclaimed coward and damn proud of it. He gets himself into the stickiest of situations but always finds a way to slip himself right out of them. He constantly tells himself he needs to find a way to get out of the mission he finds himself on, to get home to his creature comforts, but never seems to try very hard at all. He’s an excellent liar, and the most successful of his lies is convincing himself he’s a coward.

“I’m a good liar. A great one. And to be a great liar you have to live your lies, to believe them, to the point that when you tell them to yourself enough times even what’s right before your eyes will bend itself to the falsehood.”

The plot itself is simple enough. A journey across land and across sea, with a few highs, lows, and adventures along the way. The more important journeys are the personal ones, the ones that see the characters develop and bond and bloom. Considering the scope of this world and aspects of the plot, this is very much a character-driven story. And i’m totally on board with that.

There is are a couple of chapters that have a direct overlap with The Broken Empire series. These books are set at the same time, and here we meet Jorg and his brothers returning home to Ancrath. As much as i loved seeing these characters again–and from a completely new point of view–it seemed to drag a little. Jal and Snorri’s stop over in Ancrath felt a little too contrived, just so the crossover could happen. In the end it added little to either timeline, and i’d’ve much preferred a fleeting and memorable encounter with the Brothers on the road.

But yes, love. I loved it. I want to start the second book in the series immediately, but i’m going to hold off for a few books. Long enough to build some excitement and suspense, but not so long that i’ve forgotten all the details. I would really love more people to read these books, but i fear not enough people enjoy fantasy, or would enjoy this fantasy for the same reasons i do. Alas, i will love them all to myself.

The Boy on the Bridge

Title: The Boy on the Bridge

Author: M.R. Carey

Summary: Once upon a time, in a land blighted by terror, there was a very clever boy. The people thought the boy could save them, so they opened their gates and sent him out into the world.

To where the monsters lived.

Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5

Review: I read The Girl with All the Gifts four years ago (where does the time go!?) and absolutely loved it. So when i heard Carey was releasing a prequel i was equal measures excited and apprehensive. Excited because yes, more! Apprehensive because, oh no, what if it’s shit?

As the five stars i’ve given it will indicate–it’s not shit.

I knew nothing going in, but had somehow assumed this book took place before the outbreak–that it would be about the outbreak. Instead, it’s several years after the outbreak, and several years before Gifts. It’s a nice spot, because we don’t know the details about what happened at the time of the outbreak, and we don’t know exactly how the discoveries made in this book lead to the things we see in Gifts. There are still plenty of gaps left in the story for speculation and interpretation, which is the kind of thing i love.

The book focuses on the crew of the Rosalind Franklin, an armoured military truck, on its research trek across the UK in search of a cure for Ophiocordyceps, which has infected the human race. The Rosalind Franklin is not unfamiliar–it is the armoured truck the characters of Gifts find in the latter part of the book. So i was very intrigued to find out more about how the truck had got there, what had happened before hand, and where all the crew had gone.

There are more characters in this book–12, compared to Gifts’ 4–though it’s fairly obvious who the red shirts are, as we don’t really ever get to know them. Our core characters are a group of seven. And it’s these characters that make the book, for me. I loved them. All of them–even the not so good ones. Which is good, because with this book being a prequel to an apocalyptic future–we know things don’t exactly work out perfectly for the plot. It has to be the characters that carry this story.

An eccentric genius, or just an ill-equipped explorer swaying on the rickety rope bridge between sanity and madness?

And the characters are all so well written and have such depth. None of them are stereotypes, and although a couple aren’t far off, they all have enough about them to make them more than the role they’re playing in the narrative. Stephen, the boy of the title, who at 15 is incredibly intelligent, on the autistic spectrum, and haunted by grief and trauma. He’s the linchpin of the whole book and logical to a fault, but not perfect and makes several errors in judgement that impact the plot. Samrina, a scientist and surrogate mother to Stephen–she has some personal cargo to worry about. Fournier, the lead scientist and closest stereotype of the book–he’s the obvious and easy bad guy. Carlisle, the military escort leader–his past and his internal struggles make him a wise but fallible leader. Foss, a female military sniper holding her own in a man’s world–she fights to make something of herself and earn the respect she deserves. Sixsmith, the driver and bright spark of this motley crew–she’s the heart and soul backing them all up.

And then there’s McQueen. He was the most surprising to me, because he quickly and inexplicably became my favourite character. Head strong, arrogant, and often going off-book in his military role of second in command–he has all the traits that should make me dislike him. But i didn’t. For me, all along, it was clear there was something else to him. His arrogance was a cover–a front he had to put on to fulfil the stereotype people expect of him. His issue with Carlisle was the most interesting thing to me. How they misunderstood and made assumptions of each other. I had all my hopes pinned on them working things through and working together. At times i think McQueen’s negative feelings towards Carlisle were a bit much, and definitely not resolved fully to my liking. But i’ve decided that it does all get properly concluded–it’s just not part of the book.

The plot is simple enough, with plenty of ups and downs along the way. Including glimpses of things we’re familiar with in Gifts and hints at how things come about between here and there. There is also a suitable climactic action scene which will look great if and when they make the film. And the ending, which is to say, the epilogue, was a little different and unexpected. I’ve seen some reviews claiming it completely undoes the ending of Gifts, and while i see where that’s coming from… i don’t wholly agree. I think it adds a layer–it adds to the possibilities of the future.

With how focused this book was, and how much scope there is in the world Carey has created here, I can see more books happening–prequels and sequels. And there are a few things, people, and places i’d like to see included in them. I’ll wait and see what Carey might have in store with eager anticipation.

Sealed

sealedTitle: Sealed

Author: Naomi Booth

Summary: Heavily pregnant Alice and her partner Pete are done with the city. Above all, Alice is haunted by the rumours of the skin sealing epidemic starting to infect the urban population. Surely their new remote mountain house will offer safety, a place to forget the nightmares and start their little family. But the mountains and their people hold a different kind of danger. With their relationship under intolerable pressure, violence erupts and Alice is faced with the unthinkable as she fights to protect her unborn child.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: I was given a free copy of this book by the publisher via their twitter account, and i was quite intrigued by the sound of it. Described as an “eco horror” it instantly sounded interesting to me.

I loved the “eco” side of the story, with the mysterious new cutis disease, the smog of the cities, the wild fires of the mountains, and “protected” food. There was also some political aspects, with some cutis cover ups, displacement camps run like prisons, a lack of local resources. It had a lot of dystopian-vibes, but doesn’t quite delve deep enough; it’s more pre-dystopian.

Although it had these themes, they were only really lightly touched upon in the grand scheme of the story. The focus was on our main character, Alice, and her partner, Pete. I’ll be honest–i didn’t like them. I felt for Alice, with her cutis obsession and being cut off from information and updates, but she was also weak and pathetic in the face of Pete’s dominance and control. He tells her to stop thinking, asking, worrying, distracting… he just wants to fit in with his new friends and not have to give a shit about his girlfriend’s fears and emotions. He was a knobhead.

In almost every chapter there is more revealed about the past. The history of cutis, of Alice and Pete’s relationship and childhoods, of the death of Alice’s mother and how this has affected her. And while this was interesting stuff to learn, the segues seemed a little too forced to me. There was a scene with Alice suddenly taking an interest in flowers as a reason for her to rummage for her mum’s gardening books to then start remembering her mum’s garden to lead into the past. I wondered if the strange flower Alice had found was related to the cutis epidemic or the environmental changes, but no. Instead, flowers and gardening are never mentioned again.

The last chapter was where the horror aspect really stepped up, with things happening as i’d been expecting them to since chapter two. The unkempt house down the road, the crotchety old man with a gun, the heavily pregnant woman… I loved how cutis played its part here, i loved the unreality of Alice’s experience and how that came across in the writing, and, as a horror fan, i loved the gore.

Overall, the story was very character-driven and -focused. Too much so for my own personal taste. It was far more about Alice’s psychological state of mind and how she copes (or doesn’t cope) with the events unfolding around her, rather than those events themselves. The end of the book was great–on the cusp of the dystopian future i’d be fascinated to read more about.