A review of Brian Lumley’s “The Burrowers Beneath”

A continuation of the H P Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu” cycle of the stories set in 1990’s Britain, the eponymous Occult scientist Titus Crowe and his Watsonian sidekick Henri Laurent de Marigny face off against eldritch horrors burrowing beneath the Earth.
It has the tone of Victorian gothic melodrama, being told in an epistalatory  fashion, with heroes who have a curiously old fashioned vibe of daring do about them.  And although its set in the 90’s, there are very little by way of cultural signifiers that would place the story there, apart from the odd mention of oil rigs, phones and cars.  Taken together with the above mentioned style, for the first quarter of the narrative I genuinely thought I was in pre-war Britain.
And for the most part it works, adding to the feeling of fog shrouded streets and tentatcled, timeless horrors in the shadows.  It gets off to a good start, with a series of letters about the discovery of mysterious spheres in inexplicably carved tunnels underground.  We soon learn of other underground scientific expeditions that have ended in horror, madness and disaster, and of a race of terrifying burrowing tentacled monsters and their place in a pantheon of alien horrors that have existed before our world began.  They are not interested in a planet share…
There are some great set pieces; the destruction of an oil rig; battles between telepathic fighters, explosive harpoons and giant creatures; a renevant creature with a body of slime holding a human brain, and more.
The narrative as a whole, though, is a little too reliant on massive info dumps and chunks of exposition, as our heroes consult and reference various occult sources to explain the nature and history of this threat.  There are also a lot of passages that are there purely to set up future stories in the Titus Crowe series.  And it has a very open, cliff hanger of a conclusion.  As a result this reads more of an account of a skirmish in a bigger war, rather than a stand alone story.
That said it does not require any previous reading or knowledge of Lovecraft’s works, and could be a good jumping on point for a very rich tradition in horror fiction.  I listened to the audio book of this novel, and it’s read by Simon Vance, whose cool, civilised tones suit the tale perfectly.  And kudos to him for his seemingly effortless pronunciation of the tongue twisting, syllable crashing Cthulian chants and alien names.

A review of Michael J Sullivan’s “Theft of Swords.”

Theft of Swords is a compilation volume of Michael J Sullivan’s first two novels in the “Ryria” series, ‘The Crown Tower,’ and ‘Avempartha.’
Our heroes belong to the “Rogue” class in the fantasy kingdom;’ they are Hadrian and Royce, two thieves for hire, mercenaries who use skills of stealth and combat to earn a buck and make their way in the world.  At the start of Book 1 that is life for them, they are on no heroic quest, they bear no allegiance, and whilst there is an underlining honour among thieves morality, they aren’t particularly interested in writing wrongs.  Book 1 sees them tricked into being the patsies in a Royal assassination   They unfold a huge conspiracy, involving the Church, and those pushing for a Republican Empire.  Along the way they will rescue a Wizard of dubious allegiance, who may yet hold the key to the whole adventure.  And they just might find that the need to do the right thing is not as disposable as they thought.
Book 2 begins an adventure of a different tone, but still continuing the tightly knit story arc.  The conspiracy continues, this time involving a mystical beast laying siege to a farming community.  Only a rare relic imprisoned in an Elvish tower can stop it, and our thieves are the men for the job.
What stands out in these books for me is the character development.  Hadrian and Royce are compelling characters you will grow to love.  Royce is the hooded, laconic stranger, a master of stealth who in a previous life was a top assasin.  Royce is a warrior, double sworded, tough as Hell and an excellent fighter.  He is talkative, affable, and quicker to take up a chivalrous quest, to recognise moral duty than his partner.   As they go through their adventure they witness and are part of horrors, they rescue the weak and vulnerable and find themselves unwitting champions of justice.  Sullivan’s skill is in writing these character arcs believably and subtly.  As with these other characters, the King, developing from a precocious young Prince to a care worn statesman is another journey that is satisfying and has integrity.  Minor characters, such as a grieving father / farmer in the second book also journey from bitterness to self realisation and hope in a nuanced and shaded way that is far from contrived.
Then there is the skill of the world building.  Whilst the narrative delivers well paced, action packed questing and adventuring, behind this is a believable, epic world, created with familiar archetypes,  but in a way that balances real-world politicking  with elves, wizards and monsters, but avoids the oppressive cynicism of Game of Thrones.  There’s an underlying humour, lightness of touch and cracking dialogue.  But it does not slip into by now overly familiar fantasy satire.  These are stories of real heft and dramatic consequence.
I listened to the audio-book version of this, read by Tim Gerard Reynolds.  He is well suited to these tales, and moves through an impressive dramatic range of voices, from Hadrian’s cheerful banter, Royce’s laconic and abrupt manner, and an array of hissing villains, elder wizards, feisty Princesses and more.

A review of Robert Jordan’s “Lord of Chaos: Book 6 of ‘The Wheel of Time’.”

My history with Robert Jordan’s huge 14 book saga started just over 20 years ago when I first cracked open  the “Wheel of Time. ”  Here I was introduced to Lews Therin and the madness through ‘channelling’ the ‘one power’ that would destroy him and kill his wife, and crumble his castle.  I remember key events in the book.  I remember working my way through the series, I think it was Book 5 that accompanied me to my honeymoon.  And it was Book 6, this one, Lord of Chaos, that finally defeated me a quarter of the way through.  Other than a few abortive attempts to pick up where I left off, I laid the series to rest for 20 years.  Then, I decided to download the audio-book and defeat it this way.
Why did I initially leave the series?  This was down to both what some variously describe as the series greatest strength, and also its greatest flaw; the detail, the sheer, remorseless detail, the piling of chapter upon chapter from a  multitude of locations and perspectives.  It’s a flaw because it is at times ill disciplined.  Each book will leave a number of plot strands dangling and I am sure they are picked up in later instalments, but it makes that particular novel more unsatisfying. Then there is the minutiae of the descriptive prose, a lot which a charitable editor would have moved their red pen swiftly through.   The good side of this is that, if you surrender yourself to it, a bit like the characters in the series surrender themselves to the Source or the Power, chances are you’ll be thoroughly immersed in this fantasy world, and it will haunt your thoughts and dreams.
The series describes of a band of young people who are “Taveren” i.e. focal points of destiny, and how they form around a farm-boy called Rand-Al-Thor who has mysterious parentage and is in fact a prophesied Messianic figure who will destroy the Dark Lord of the series called, unsurprisingly, the Dark One.  This is in fact an epic cycle that must link and repeat through the ages, the titular Wheel of Time.
The Dark One has an army of monstrous figures assisting him; the Forsaken, a bickering, competing group of figures who step in and out of history and cause chaos, Half men, like Tolkien’s Wraiths, Trollocs, human-animal hybrids reminiscent of Tolkien’s Ors, and more.  There are figures who surpass evil itself like the monstrous Padan Fain, a former Tinker who has gone beyond life and death.  There are also ‘dark-friends,’ human allies to the evil power.
There is a wizard caste in the series, Aes Sadai, but here it’s wholly female, because the one power, think ‘the Force’ in Star Wars, can be channelled safely only by women.The female half is called Saidar.  If a male channels the male half of the power, Saidan, it will drive them mad with spectacularly destructive results.  Hence the Aes Sadai see it as part of their mission to ‘gentle’ ie neuter from the one power any man who can channel.  This causes Rand a few difficulties.
Lord of Chaos, then, takes up the story with Rand consolidating his grip on a number of cities and provinces, whilst laying stratagems against the Forsaken, with the focus of his plans at this point being a dude called Sammael who is at that point marshalling his forces against Rand.   Meanwhile, the Aes Sedai have been fractured into two camps; an aggressive clan (the ‘official’ Aes Sedai) who want to gentle Rand and eliminate any male channelling the One Power (they seized power in a bloody coup in a previous book) and a renegade group, where most of our Aes Sedai heroines  (including heroines we have known from the first book) are, including Elayne (also ‘Daughter heir of Andor), Nynavae and Egwene. This group are more holistic in their approach.  Some of our heroines in this group get involved in hunting down powerful artefacts, ‘Ter’Angreal,’  that they have come across  whilst dream-walking in the Land of Dreams, ‘Tel Ar Anrihod’ (these spellings are from memory so please bear with me) whilst others work out how they may help Rand (not all the good Aes Sedai believe they should).
Meanwhile two of the other Taveren (see above), Matt and Perrin, move with their armies to assist Rand.  Matt is roguish gambler with a talent for luck, and Perrin has wolf like abilities, he can link with wolves to experience the world through them and call to them, and he can see and hear like a Wolf.  He’s your fantasy novel character with the big axe.
So a lot of these main themes are unresolved in the book, its greatest frustration.   The last few chapters pages or so instead deal with a threat to Rand that whilst not wholly unexpected, was not the one we expected to close the book.   I won’t spoil it further, but these last chapters do generate some threat and tension.
As mentioned above, there is a lot of detail in this book that will at time have you shaking your head either in befuddled resignation, or just sighing and going with it.  There are lots of descriptions of clothes.  The politicking of the Aes Sedai and the sheer profusion of characters is head spinning at times.  The bad guys aren’t in it enough, when they are it does get a lot more interesting.  The gender politics of the book (and of Jordan’s works as a whole) is straight off a heavy metal album covers of the 70’s, women hardly dressed in various submissive poses, whilst being towered over by aggressive muscle clad male figures (or monsters). There may be a chain collar on the woman (optional).  Yes there are elements in Jordan’s writings that seem to refute this (the Aes Sedai clan are the most powerful in this world and the dominant power, strong women are as prevalent if not more so than male counterparts) but it all seems a bit disingenuous when you have scenes such as in this book, where a key Aes Sedai ritual involves all women showing their breasts and stating “I am a woman.”
In the final analysis though, the books remain great fun and will keep you company for ages.  And when you look at Jordan’s CV (highly decorated Vietnam Vet, physics  arts and games enthusiast) you can see the life experience and intelligence that informs his writings.  Start from Book One, and if you can, keep going.
The audio-book is a good and clear presentation read by Michael Kramer whose reads with a good measured pace, just the right amount of gravitas and nuanced for the different roles, and Kate Reading, who also does a splendid job coping with wide range of female voices.

A review of Iain Rob Wright’s “The Gates: An Apocalyptic Horror Novel (Hell on Earth Book 1)”

All over the world mysterious black stones appear.  They begin to pulsate, shimmer and then project a shimmering arch, through which surge hordes of demons, intent on world conquest.

The story is told through multiple viewpoints:  Mina Magar, photojournalists in London, Rick Bastion, a faded alcoholic one hit wonder rock star in the UK South West, Tony Cross, a Staff Sergeant on the Iraq/Syria border, and Guy Granger, a US Coastguard off the coast of a besieged New York.  All of them are close to a stone when it becomes a Gate, and all of them are in the front-line in this new war against Hell.

The monsters break down into 4 main groups; giant fallen angels, complete with loincloths and frazzled wings; badly burnt humanoids, ape like creatures with razor sharp talons, and possessed humans.  The humanoids are talkative but their conversation is generally unpleasant, forever calling people “maggot” and “worm,” and threatening to variously disembowel people or defecate in their skull.  All have a beef with humanity and generally want it gone so they can take over the world and desecrate God’s creation and make Him appear so they can make Him vulnerable and attack Him.  Or something.

This book is stark, staring bonkers.  Even by the standards of apocalyptic horror, it’s out there.  It makes like your average zombie novel read like common sense.  It has an effective build up and when the demons first appear I was intrigued.  The multiple plot-lines / viewpoints were an interesting juxtaposition and you waited for some kind of narrative cohesion that would help you to buy into this world.  That does not appear.  There are a lot of set pieces, some effective shocks and Game of Thrones-esque offing of a major characters (although one is rescued by a pretty gob-smacking Deus ex machina) but there’s a lot of laboured exposition and info-dumping, as demons taunt their prey and explain the plot in a way the villains used to do on bad tv.

The theology is cartoonish in its depiction and understanding of Hell and it’s hierarchies.

And yet, I did enjoy the book, and it rattled along at a good old rate.  There is enough skill in evidence to keep you flipping teh pages and immersed in this utterly daft pulp horror.

The audio version is read by Nigel Patterson who does a good job of characterisation, clarity and pacing

A review of Riyria Chronicles Tales “The Jester” and “Professional Integrity.”

Both of these short stories, set in Michael J. Sullivan’s fantasy series “The Riyria Chronicles,” are available separately and are currently free on Audible UK.

They are both gems, and they compelled me after listening to buy the first volume of the Riyria Chronicles.

‘The Thief’ is a fantasy archetype used in fantasy literature and gaming.  Their skill-set usually includes stealth and lock-picking, usually framed in a rouge’s exterior but (sometimes) grounded nevertheless with a moral sense.

Here all of the above would be true, but from these two short stories I felt I got to know the characters very well, as they are so well drawn.  It helps that there is a lot of humour, fresh, funny, character driven and enriching to the story, but not the familiar satire you would expect from Terry Pratchett (God rest his soul) and his imitators.

The protagonists are Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater, a team of two thieves for hire in a world of traps, dungeons, treachery, and feuding lords and kingdoms.  In “The Jester” we are introduced to our heroes and other protagonists in mid plummet as they find themselves on the wrong end of a trap.  It’s a wonderful opening.  With a cowardly pig farmer and the determined candle maker who hired them, they must solve the mystery of missing map pieces that may or may not lead to treasure, the quest having been set by the titular Jester. They find themselves in a sealed flooded room, with an angry monster on the other side of one door, and possible traps leading from a lever, another door, and a treasure chest.  They must activate or go through one of these to get out of the chamber.  Only one will lead to freedom (a previous wrong choice led them to the opening plummet) but which?

The story is told rapidly in flashback, or rather the key bits of it we need to know.  It’s a good way of quickly filling in the backdrop for this short story.  The humour is in the bickering and interplay between these very different characters.

A 40  minute listen that got me hooked to the characters, their world and the narrative style, this is testament to the writers skill.

I followed this up with “Professional Integrity.”  This is an ingenious mystery of the “locked box in a room” variety.  Hired by a naive young woman to arrange her own kidnapping to attract the attentions of a suitor who she presumes will come to the rescue, Royce and Hadrian are intrigued, especially when the girl explains that she is locked in a box by a father when this beau comes to visit.  Things soon, of course, escalate and unravel in highly entertaining and unexpected directions.

Lovely stuff, and looking forward to exploring this world more.

Good, clear, characterful narration from Tim Gerard Reynolds.

A review of Stephen Donaldson’s fantasy novella “The King’s Justice”

“The Kings Justice” is a fantasy novella of sorcerers,  elemental forces, and good versus evil.

It begins with the enigmatic, cloaked figure who calls himself “Black” arriving at a small town settlement called “Settler’s Crossways.”  He’s driven by a burning purpose that draws him on, a need to ensure that a terrible war between elemental forces is not repeated.  He can smell evil, and Settler’s Crossway’s reeks of it.  He gradually learns of the brutal murder of a small boy that has left the community stunned and reeling.  What has this to do with his wider mission?  Is someone or something attempting to conjure monstrous new elemental forces?  What is the nature of “The King’s Justice” that the townsfolk have called for and how can Black deliver it?

This book is a rock hard diamond of compact storytelling.  Not one word is superfluous, each syllable drives the story forward with a terrible urgency.  In  119 pages it’s a masterclass in concentrated world-building.  Donaldson’s Kingdom of elemental wars, Sorcerers, “Shapers” and “Shaped men” focused on a small community visited by a terrible evil has complete narrative integrity.  Black is a familiar genre figure, the driven, cloaked and armed loner as an agent of justice.  But the difference here is that he is a “shaped man,” covered with glyphs and sigils that can summon the elemental magic he strives to keep in balance in his world.

The tale’s examination of wider themes of good and evil does not stop at cliche.  They are powerful and transcendent.  The evil here is not just a fuming Dark Lord, but crimes of the most appalling violence that unfortunately we are all to familiar with in our own world.  Donaldson writes compellingly of the effect of these crimes on those most closely affected, such as a grieving father.  The powers of goodness are described are not twee or completely overshadowed by the evil as in some current popular fantasy series, but compelling and redemptive.  Donaldson starts by having a his hero describe a reductive worldview where the world and all its elemental forces are all there is,(substitute these forces for science and our world and you’ll get the idea), and then transcends it  as Black and those around him experience much more.

I listened to the audio-book version, narrated by the excellent Scott Brick.  His reading has a contained, driven passion that completely suits the tale.

A review of Ezekiel Boone’s “The Hatching”

The Hatching is about two things; killer spiders, and Diet Coke.

So the spiders.  They are a vicious flesh eating horde that hunt in packs, swing through the air on silken threads, and incubate and hatch in live hosts (e.g. people).  They invade the world pretty much, and the invasion is told through differing perspectives; a troop of US Marines, an FBI agent struggling to protect his family, the US President and her staff, a family on a Scottish island, a group of survivalists in the US town of Desperation, and more.

Diet Coke meanwhile is a multi million dollar brand that has already taken over the world.  But you already knew that.  How do these themes come together?  Through product placement so obvious it’s offensive.  Diet Coke is mentioned roughly 10 times, usually with a complimentary description of its effects and taste and powers to revive.  If it was a film, the characters would be raising the tins to the camera and smiling.

If it was a film.  That’s another brazenly cynical thing about the book.  It is a project engineered to make moohlah through a concept sure to sell books and pack movie theatres.  It reads like it.  It’s a brisk, pacy read (352 pages, around 8 hours for the audio book), full of rapid cuts between scenes (especially  the final chapter) and spectacular set pieces (such as a freighter ship full of spiders running aground in LA).  The gore is pretty dialled down given the subject the matter, so it won’t scare away the studio bosses.  You could probably get away with rating it a 12, 15 at a push.

Characters and situations are left undeveloped and hanging for the next sequel instalment.

The audio book is a crisply read by George Newbern, who sounds like he is enjoying himself, and who probably consumed a crate of Diet Coke on the job.  He certainly sounds preppy.

Diet Coke is appropriate, this is horror lite, quickly consumed to give you a brief, forgettable buzz.