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 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 G.K.Chesterton’s “The Man who was Thursday: A Nightmare”

This work, sometimes called “a metaphysical thriller,” is a rich delight.

It tells the story of one Gabriel Syme, who challenges anarchist Lucien Gregory on his views at an evening gathering in a bohemian side street in Edwardian era London.  Gabriel asserts those who bring order, even those who reliably steer trains to reliable destinations, are heroic linchpins that keep chaos at bay.  Lucien argues that chaos will liberate and create.  Gregory argues that only with order framing the chaos can any creating or anything else be done. It sets the tone for the central conflicts and arguments of the book.

Irritated, Lucien invites Gabriel to an anarchist meet, where he is horrified to discover that Gabriel is a Police detective(part of a special branch hunting anarchists).  Through a series of bluffs and counter-bluffs, Gabriel assumes the guise of a henchman of the notorious “Sunday” who rules over anarchist councils such as this everywhere, and is held in awe and fear among the anarchists.  Pushing his double agent work further, he then gets himself on Sunday’s elect Council as “Thursday,” where his comrades are also named after the different days of the week.  At his first supreme council meet, his spiritual intelligence detects an air of something truly diabolical about Sunday and his comrades.  He finds himself embroiled in a fight where the stakes could not be bigger..

To reveal more would be to plunge too far into spoilers.  For this is a wonderfully intricate piece of story-telling, its parts and components slotted together with a watch-makers skill.  If you do guess a twist, you won’t foresee how it will play out.  And if you do guess or work out from previous hints the identity of Sunday, you won’t foresee exactly how that plays out, and what the arguments behind the big reveal are.

Suffice it to say that G.K.Chesterton tells a cracking story first and foremost, and through that delves into some of the mysteries of the Christian Faith. This fits so well with the story, indeed it is the story, that it does not reduce the story to allegory or trick the reader.  Far from it.  This is a book to enrich, enlighten and entertain.  And it is often very, very funny as well, balancing humour at times with Hitchcockian suspense.  More than one scene has a thrilling race against time.

I also need to give a shout out to Simon Vance, who read the audio-book I listened to.  He strikes just the right balance between the different tones of seriousness and lightness, and his characterisation s brilliant.

Read and embrace this gem, you will be richer for it.

A review of the Big Finish series “I Davros.” A four part series of audio-plays starring Terry Molloy

I came to this ‘origins’ adventure with expectations that this would be a pathos filled tale of a scientist whose perhaps good principles are corrupted and through a series of terrible accidents becomes a monster.  Superhero and sci-fi and other genre tales are full of such tragic falls from grace.  They are what makes the resulting uber-villain or monster so compelling.  From Batman’s Two-Face to Dr Jekyll, such stories abound.  In recognising the humanity in the monster, we recognise a little of the monstrous in ourselves.

With the Davros in this series, however, there is no such light and shade.  None to speak of anyway.  Davros starts in Part 1, “Innocence,” as a cynical and sadistic and sociopathic child, and really just degenerates further from that.   It’s just a descent from one kind of moral darkness to another.  As such, although there is much to thrill and entertain in this series, it did not quite have the impact I hoped for.

The whole thing is explicitly and knowingly framed in an “I Claudius ” world of a dysfunctional, powerful family, ruled over by a scheming matriarch, Lady Calcula, Carolyn Jones here channelling SIan Phillip’s Livia.  As in Robert Graves tale and the BBC drama, the good characters are culled ruthlessly by a cynical elite.  It’s framed in such a world but this is very much the Skaro heading towards the blasted Hell of ‘Genesis of the Daleks.’  A delight is how especially the later episodes reference the music and sound-scape of Genesis.  In part one Rory Jennings plays Davros in short trousers.  The kind of boy who will pull the legs of a spider not out of enjoyment but out of a detached scientific “fascination.”  Warped by his world and his family, we her see him already locking teachers in radiation chambers and other such hi-jinks.

In Part 2 Terry Molloy takes over the reins (he played Davros in a number of the tv show adventures) as Davros, here a soldier desparate to join the scientific elite.  He is sent on a seeming suicide mission with a team, and displays real courage, and shows the most human range of characteristics in the series yet.  He does get to rant, though, in true Davrios fashion, over a crippled comrade, shouting at him for his weakness.

Part 3 picks up the ‘Shan’ plot-line first sketched in the Colin Baker adventure ‘Davros.’  What begins as a very human attraction and flirtation develops, in true Davros fashion, into denial, murderous betrayal, and bitter contempt (on the part of our titular scientist).  He also has his body changing accident.

Part 4 brings us nicely to about the year before the events of Genesis.  Davros has near perfected his experiments on people with radiation, creating genetically evolved mutants.  Here he meets Nyder, a classic character from Genesis, and it’s a treat to hear Peter Miles reprise his role, and the two get on like a city on fire.  Davros demonstrates his love for children by turning them into radiation soaked monsters, the first Dalek creatures that will go on to pilot the ‘travelling machines.’  The story ends with the demonstration of the Mark 1 travelling machine (Genesis has him just finishing Mark 2 when Tom Baker arrives).

And during all this his family, friends and country men die and are massacred around him.  It is an entertaining, well produced and clever tale, and it’s a powerful and logical extension of the world of ‘Genesis.’ But it is also a bit depressing in its catalogue of atrocities, and eh Davros origin tale, as I have mentioned, is I think harmed by the lack of subtlety or human change.  He just goes from monstrous to more monstrous to experimenting on children scale monstrous.  You miss the light touch of the Doctor, any Doctor, and the sparring that would bring, which is what Genesis captured so well.

There’s also a disc of ‘extras,’ interviews with cast and crew which are good and illuminating, but I did wonder at the discussion on whether Davros was at all misunderstood.  Er…no?

A review of Peter Newman’s “The Vagrant.”

In a desolate, demon blasted landscape, a lone Seraph night, and his winged, eyed sword, treads the road.  Behind him trails a goat, and hidden under the flaps of his coat nestles a small baby girl.  He finds corrupt and corrupted humans, out and out monsters and demon Lords on his travels.  He eschews companions but where the need greatly outweighs the harm, and where it will aid his quest, he does take on various companions.  A petty criminal named Harm, a raging demon yearning for its lost innocence and humanity called The Hammer, and other more transient helpers, some more ambivalent than others, join the quest.  Their quest is to return the winged and eyed sword to the Seven, the original Seraph rulers.  But what this will mean is uncertain…

Peter Newman has accomplished an incredible feat of world building.  My initial feeling on starting this work was disorientation.  Was this Earth of the far future or a different reality / dimension?  The archetypes are ours (people, Hell, Knights, Demons, Animals etc.), and yet the strangeness, the otherness, is bewildering.  Twin suns in the sky.  A demonic invasion through a huge breach (crack) in the ground that has remained dormant for centuries.  A demonic essence that infects and mutates like radiation.  An ancient order of Seraph Knights that has ruled before the Infernal invasion.  A technology including sky-ships, Centipede tanks, laser lances, all framed in medieval and feudal archetypes.  It is head-spinning stuff.  Then there’s the adventure, the quest, which is more straightforward; lone hero, a man with no name, must deliver a powerful talisman to the high powers to rid the world of a massive evil.  But that itself is spun by the wonderful tricks in the narrative.  The titular, eponymous Vagrant does not speak.  Instead his thoughts are reflected by his expressions, actions and interactions, including with the baby he protects, and with his companions.  And his goat!  How the Vagrant got to this position is told in intervals in a thrilling back-story that begins with the demonic invasion.

Characterisation of subsidiary characters is also very well done.  The baby (Vesper) and the Goat are powerful characters in their own right.  In the audio-book, wonderfully voiced by Jot Davies, Vesper’s infant gurgles and expressions are convincingly done.  Also, the main companion, Harm, is a wonderful piece of character development,  from jittery low-life to a redeemed man both grateful and anxious about the shelf life of his redemption.  Again, Jot Davies’s audio-book narration imbues him with humanity.  Other characters such as snarling demons and Knight Commanders are given a wonderful range of expression.  The monsters are truly alien and frightening.  Shape shifters that feed off souls and clothe themselves in corpses, or inhabit and posses and mutate live bodies, they are a cross between Anime/Manga monsters and HP Lovecraft.  The chief baddies have wonderful names like “The Uncivil.”

The Vagrant himself is a true Knight in that, where he can, he will right wrongs and save lives.  He won’t where it will mean the failure of his mission and where he does have to leave people to die, it is shocking and he is racked with anguish.  He also redeems others and wins followers of the most broken in humanity in a very Christ like way.  Harm vocalises this more than anyone, speaking about how he has been changed and his life give new meaning.  This goodness is set against an  evil that can only consume, corrupt and destroy, not build anything new.  The book portrays good versus evil with a refreshing (take note Game of Thrones) lack of cynicism.

If there are weaknesses, it’s that sometimes the multiple strangeness’s combine to make the action confusing.  Events seem to be heading for an epic conflagration that never quite happens.  Yet.  There is so much here the book could have been much longer.  There seems so much to explore.  I hope there is more from this strange, compelling and yet familiar world.  Very recommended.