Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A conversation with Giles Kristian

Having been bowled over by his Raven trilogy, I contacted Giles via twitter (@GilesKristian) to try lure him into a chat about the books. Fortunately no coercion was required as the enthusiasm he'd shown at the launch of Odin's Wolves was still very much in evidence.

Welcome to MFB, Giles and thank you for a cracking read!

MFB: What was the seed or catalyst for the story? What sparked it into life?

GK: Being half Norwegian, I spent many, many childhood holidays in and around the Norwegian fjords. I would imagine longships brimming with warriors setting off through the island channels towards the open sea, the men’s families waving them off, children running and jumping over rocks, calling out excitedly, trying to keep up. I would imagine the warriors themselves, full of bravado thought they knew they might never return. There is no doubt that the 1958 film The Vikings, starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis coloured my imagination and I remember even at that age thinking I’d rather be the ‘all out’ no-nonsense Viking (Douglas) than the film’s conflicted, moral-burdened hero (Curtis). We have a family cottage in the fjords and it’s my favourite place on earth. Even now, I get a palpable thrill from being in a land/seascape that, to all intents and purposes, appears to my eyes as it would have to a sea-raider’s eyes one thousand years ago. In that environment if a boy doesn’t think of Vikings then I feel sorry for him. But it was whilst on a stag weekend in Oslo that the vague story in my mind began to reveal itself, like a dragon ship prowing out of the fog.

We were visiting the incredible Viking Ship Museum and I was staring, utterly captivated (for the second time in my life) by the stunningly beautiful Gokstad Ship, dug out of the ground on a farm in Gokstad in 1880. Surrounded by my own crew of enthusiastic young men from foreign shores I got the notion that what we were engaged in was a little raiding trip of our own, not so different from those of days gone by, though perhaps the risks were less for us. Then again perhaps not. That sense of camaraderie, of a ‘fellowship’ in search of adventure was the ember that would become the flame of the RAVEN saga.

MFB: Which of the trilogy proved the most difficult to write?

GK: The third book, Odin’s Wolves, was the most difficult to write because in it I have tried to re-create, or at least give a believable impression of, Rome and Constantinople (or Miklagard – the Great City, to the Norsemen). My aim was to capture Rome in all its faded glory and Constantinople in all its magnificence. This is quite a challenge compared to describing a muddy Saxon village that is little more than a clutter of wooden dwellings and animal pens. Depictions of Rome in its heyday are everywhere, not least in historical fiction, but descriptions of Rome in the 9th century – fiction or non-fiction – are not all that easy to come. I wondered what kind of state it would have been in by then and wondered, too, how historical ruins might have been viewed by folk who are to us historical themselves. My aim was to try to give a sense of how extraordinary these great and ancient cities must have appeared to my Norsemen who have no reference for what they are seeing, no concept of such size, let alone the architecture, wealth, politics etc of such metropolises.

In one scene in Odin’s Wolves they come across a mosque. Bearing in mind that Raven himself is narrating the story (not the usual literary device of an all-seeing, all-knowing, omnipresent narrator whom the reader conveniently agrees not to notice or question) how would he describe a mosque, having never seen a domed building before? Even using the word ‘dome’ felt utterly wrong to me, almost anachronistic. So I had to have the Norsemen describe the mosque within the confines of their own framework of reference. Rather embarrassingly (but perhaps fittingly) to them the building’s shape conjures the image of a giantess’s breast, and so the mosque becomes Gerd’s Tit. (Don’t blame me!).

MFB:  What kept you going when the going go a bit rocky?

GK: The emails I receive from readers make the whole experience of writing even more satisfying. To think that people take the time out of their busy day to express how much they’ve enjoyed the books is something I find amazing. Also, reading a good review makes my day, even though other authors I respect have told me to take little notice of reviews good or bad. (Yeah, right). But really, I don’t need much to keep me going. Being a novelist is an absolute joy and a privilege. There is nothing I would rather do.

MFB: You’ve certainly demonstrated a good grasp of the era and captured real feeling of ‘being there’. How did you get inside their minds so convincingly?

GK: I like to think that the sense of camaraderie amongst my motley crew is what keeps the reader rooting for them even though at times their behaviour can be somewhat poor even by 9th century standards. The good-natured insults, the banter, the arrogance and occasional insecurities that you find aboard Serpent or Fjord-Elk can be found in any football or rugby team’s dressing room, or in any army barracks around the world today. It’s a sense of belonging to something, being a part of something and sharing experiences. It’s really about friendship, I suppose. Warriors sometimes fight for ideals, or because they’re simply following orders, but mostly they fight for each other. That was the same then as now. So I don’t really think it’s too difficult to get inside their heads. It’s their clothes I wouldn’t fancy getting into (apart from Cynethryth’s. ha!). Imagine the scratchiness.

MFB: The guys from Urban Apache did a fantastic job with the prologue for Odin's Wolves, which I've embedded at the bottom of this post. How did that come about? And how does it feel seeing your characters coming to life beyond the pages?

GK: Urban Apache and director Phillip Stevens did an incredible job in bringing the prologue to glorious (goryous?) life for the big screen. I met Phil at one of my book launches and he gave me another short film he and his crew had made (Northmen) and I was so impressed I knew straight away that I wanted to work with them. Together we came up with the idea of making a book trailer that went beyond anything else we’ve seen out there for an historical fiction novel. The result is a 12 minute film, from which we cut two short trailers. It was an incredible experience! Cast and crew from near and far gathered in a longhouse in York one freezing day in January, and after several day’s shooting in various locations we had a film we are all enormously proud of. Raven himself (superbly played by David Clayton) is the only character from the books represented on screen (the rest are all long gone) and he blew my mind. His intensity and charisma as the ageing and proud warrior is as tangible as a Dane axe in the face. For me it was an honour to work with Urban Apache and you can take it from me that they are going places. Talent like that won’t be ignored. I only wish we could spread the word and get more people watching it, because to me it shows that talent and enthusiasm are more than a match for a big budget. Please help the film fly and pass it on to your friends if you enjoy it.

MFB:The covers of each book are very striking. Did you have any input into them?

GK: I am lucky that the design team at Transworld are top notch and really know how to make an (blood)eye-catching jacket. I do get involved in the cover designs to an extent, though only because I have worked with movie poster designers for several years and have some modest appreciation of the process. I remember for Blood Eye asking that the character’s face be much more heavily shadowed. I thought he was too clean-cut, too good looking to be a Viking. I also thought it would lend a sense of mystery and foreboding, which is never a bad thing to my mind. Plus, I thought the readers would assume the character on the cover was Raven himself, and rather than plant that image in their mind’s eye, I would rather each and every reader has their own mental image of what Raven looks like. When all’s said and done, I think it’s only fair that a book cover with my name on it should have my blessing. The last think you want is to let something go and then regret it every time you look at the cover. I think each of the RAVEN saga book jackets really capture, by way of colour palettes as well as visual themes, the spirits of each tale, and for that I have the Transworld crew to thank.

MFB: Did you have a series in mind when you started writing?

GK: The honest answer is that I had a series in mind but very little idea where the tale would lead. But one day in 2007 (three years after I’d begun writing Blood Eye) my agent phoned me in New York to say that Transworld were interested and that they wanted to see the outlines for the second and third books. I thought, doh! Better come up with something! Fortunately though, the Norns were busy weaving and it all turned out OK.

MFB: Do you write in silence and/or isolation, or to music? If the latter, what sort?

GK: Mostly I write in silence in my study at home. However, often if I’m writing a battle scene I’ll play movie soundtracks to inspire me, to perhaps echo the rhythms of the fight. I’ll play the gladiator score, or Kingdom of Heaven or Braveheart, Last of the Mohicans, or Lord of the Rings. Gets me in the mood and sometimes makes it feel less like work!

MFB: What’s the coolest thing you discovered while doing your research?

GK: I commissioned Nigel Carren , a master armourer, to hand make me a Viking helmet (all in the name of research of course) and I love it. It’s a 4-piece steel Spangen helmet with one-piece cross and nasal, and highly ornamented occularia. (The golden eyebrows above the eyeholes!) and is loosely based on the Gjermundbu helmet, the only example of a complete Viking helmet in existence. One can barely imagine how terrifying it would have been to come face to face with a warrior wearing something like this. It showed he had money and power and that he more than likely had the ability and inclination to carve you into pieces.

When I had come up with the idea for my next series (Civil War) I was at a book signing in Dorking when I walked past an antique dealer that had a three bar lobster tail pot helmet in the window. For me it’s the iconic image of the English Civil War and when I saw this particular helmet I just had to have it (again, all research you understand) and so in I went. To think that this helmet is 370 years old and that someone used to put it on hoping he’d make it through the day (literally) is quite something. I have been known to wear it whilst writing, to get a sense of what it feels like to be in the thing certainly, but mostly because when it’s on my head I just feel like causing trouble.

MFB: What are you currently working on? Will you be delving into the Viking world again?

GK: I have a new series beginning in April next year. It’s a trilogy set during the bloody and tumultuous years of the English Civil War and will be very different from the RAVEN saga. This series follows the (mis)fortunes of a family ripped apart during the struggles, with the reader spending time with each of the three central characters; two brothers and their sister. I have found the writing of it an extraordinary and at times moving experience and can’t wait for the release of the first book, titled The Bleeding Land. Nevertheless, I will certainly return to the Viking world, possibly even to my Fellowship from the RAVEN books. They are like old friends (the ones that I haven’t killed off!) and already I begin to I miss them.

MFB: I'll reserve some space on our shelves! Best of luck... now get back to work!

This is Urban Apache's awesome prologue for Odin's Wolves..

You can also watch the (shorter) trailer here.

You can follow Giles on Facebook, Twitter, or visit his website.

Raven Blood Eye, Sons of Thunder and Odin's Wolves by Giles Kristian

For two years Osric has lived a simple life, though he is feared and shunned for his mysterious part and blood-red eye. Then raiders from across the sea ransack his village and Osric is taken prisoner by this ruthless band of warriors.

Immersed in the Norsemen’s way of life and driven by their lust for adventure, Osric proves a natural fighter and forges a deep bond with their chief, Sigurd the Lucky, who renames him Raven.

But the Norsemen’s world is a savage one, where loyalty is often repaid in blood, and a young man must become a killer to survive. It seems the path Raven has chosen is a dangerous one indeed.

Wow. Yes, after much deliberation, that’s how I’ve chosen to start this review. Because that was the word which sprang to mind when I picked up the Raven Blood-Eye on a Sunday morning, and again when I finished Odin’s Wolves on the following Friday.

The first of the series is Raven Blood Eye, which introduces Osric/ Raven, and how he falls in with the Norsemen who arrive at the village that has become his home. Osric isn't a native Englishman, or at least he's not sure if he is since he has no memories older than two years. Then the Norsemen arrive and he discovers a talent for their language, which becomes the gateway for his induction into their ranks and a world beyond anything he ever expected.

The second book in the series, Sons of Thunder, leaves the shores of England for the continent as Sigurd and his crew chase the traitorous Ealdred to the shores of the Frankish empire- an empire sworn to eradicate heathens like them. What follows is a combination of Ocean’s Eleven and the Great Escape, Viking style, as Sigurd and Raven risk everything for honour, love and gold.

Odin’s Wolves follows Sons of Thunder, and sees the Sigurd’s fellowship turning their prow towards the fabled city of Miklagard, seeking to sate their appetite for treasure and, perhaps more prized than that, a good saga that will see their names and deeds live on through the ages. It’s no easy journey, and takes them through frozen marshlands and the shadows of what was once the glory of Rome, but nothing will truly prepare them for what waits for them at what could be their final destination.

It’s always a wonder when you come across books that hook you from the outset and only tighten their grip along the way until you can reluctantly peel yourself away from them at the end. If you pick these up, do so in the knowledge that you will miss your train station, and look up from the page to realise that the rest of the house is in darkness because “another 5 pages” turned into “another 5 chapters”.

The source of their addictiveness lies with the depth and dynamism of the characters and their interactions, particularly Osric/ Raven and Sigurd. They’re distinct personalities, each with their own foibles and aspirations, bound together by a sense of loyalty that transcends the oaths they’ve sworn. They and the camaraderie between them are realised very well, leaving little room for doubt that they would take the risks that they are. It draws you in until you’re completely immersed in their world and not so much reading about it as sharing it.

Raven’s world has been well researched and remains grounded in reality throughout the series. There’s a clear sense that the rest of the world will carry on regardless of what happens to them, cleverly contrasting the mean drudgery of the life that Osric may have led against the Vikings’ larger than life yearnings for glory and adventure and the clear sense of freedom that their way of life represents for all its dangers and deprivations. The gulf between the Norsemen’s pagan beliefs and the growth of Christianity adds to this contrast, and provides an additional level of understanding as to what makes them tick.

The series is written in the first person from Raven’s point of view, but this provides scant relief from the tension that is piled on as they continually push their luck, because this isn’t just his story. It all comes back to how you’re made to care about Sigurd and the rest of the Wolfpack, with the full knowledge that no character is safe. There’s plenty of action in each book as you’d expect, from shield walls to single duels, and I was impressed with how vividly these were portrayed, and how unforgiving the results were.

Whether you're a regular reader of historical fiction or not, read this series. It's fast, brutal, well researched, well written and an absolute blast.

Right, I'm off to sack a village.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Fenrir by MD Lachlan

The Vikings are laying siege to Paris. As the houses on the banks of the Seine burn a debate rages in the Cathedral on the walled island of the city proper. The situation is hopeless. The Vikings want the Count’s sister, in return they will spare the rest of the city.

Can the Count really have ambitions to be Emperor of the Franks if he doesn’t do everything he can to save his people? Can he call himself a man if he doesn’t do everything he can to save his sister? His conscience demands one thing, the demands of state another. The Count and the church are relying on the living saint, the blind and crippled Jehan of St Germain, to enlist the aid of God and resolve the situation for them.

But the Vikings have their own gods. And outside their camp a terrifying brother and sister, priests of Odin, have their own agenda. An agenda of darkness and madness. And in the shadows a wolfman lurks.

I picked up Fenrir with a self inflicted disadvantage, namely that I hadn't read Wolfsangel, which this follows on from. Liz read & reviewed Wolfsangel back in May last year and I remember her raving about it. So from that perspective I was quite keen to see what all the fuss was about, but at the same time I wanted to see how Fenrir fared as a standalone given that it wasn't a 'direct' follow on. Fenrir is set decades after the events of Wolfsangel, and Odin, Loki and the wolf known as Fenrir are about re-fight their battle of wits and wills through the lives of three mortals.

The story opens with Paris under siege by an army of Northmen under the banner of Sigfrid, who's seeking a young woman named by his Odin- priests, a woman who holds the key to the prophesied return of Odin to the world. A pragmatist, he's only interested in the prophecy for what kind of power it can earn him, unlike the priests who know the truth behind it. But neither he nor the priest realise that their prize is under their noses, captured along with the living saint venerated by the Franks. The saint is given to the Odin priests, and something dark is awoken amidst the blood and fear of the ancient and terrifying rites they perform.

The answer to my question is yes, you can read it as a standalone, but it does slow things down, particularly in the first third as you try and get the cast of characters straight in your head. There are references which only someone's who's read Wolfsangel will pick up on, but you can soldier on through it. There's a lot going on, and the point of view switches back and forth between various characters,which really forces you to concentrate on what you're reading.

Lachlan teases the information out as each character's story is told, and weaves these threads into a complex knot that he slowly tightens as the wolf closes in on its prey. The characterisation is good, which is has to be given the cast of characters whose heads we get to look inside, and the action sequences are impressive, eloquently capturing the fear and chaos of combat. Despite it being a story heavily involved with ancient prophesies, gods and werewolves, it all takes place across real locations and maintains a very real, fantasy- free feel to it, a juxtaposition that I feel contributes a lot to the overall atmosphere and feel of the book.

Fenrir is a dark and complex story to get into, but it rewards those who persist with a rich tale seething with myth, deception and ready violence.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Viking Dead by Toby Venables

Northern Europe, 976 AD. Bjólf and the viking crew of the ship Hrafn flee up an unknown river after a bitter battle, only to find themselves in a bleak land of pestilence. The dead don’t lie down, but become draugr – the undead – returning to feed on the flesh of their kin. Terrible stories are told of a dark castle in a hidden fjord, and of black ships that come raiding with invincible draugr berserkers. And no sooner has Bjólf resolved to leave, than the black ships appear... Now stranded, his men cursed by the contagion of walking death, Bjólf has one choice: fight his way through a forest teeming with zombies, invade the castle and find the secret of the horrific condition – or submit to an eternity of shambling, soulless undeath!

Viking Dead opens with a young boy named Atli reluctantly making his way home, knowing that all he has to look forward to is a lecture and a beating from his abusive and small minded father. But then the mist rolls up the river, and through this veil emerges a dragon. And so we meet Bjolf and his crew as they prepare for what should be just another raid on a small village.

But the raid doesn't go to plan as they're ambushed by their bitter rival Grimmsson, and they're chased out into a storm wracked estuary, where they escape Grimmsson and find Atli stowed away. Fog follows the storm, and they gratefully head towards the first land sighted, however gloomy and unwelcoming its appearance. It’s here that they encounter the first of the walking dead that plague these lands, and they quickly flee the madness of that shore, but what lays before them is far darker and stranger than they could imagine.

The imagery in Viking Dead is strong, and builds a convincing and claustrophobic world around Bjolf and his men, who are likeable, normal guys (by Viking standards) who’re just out there trying to make a living. They aren’t out to be heroes, but as they begin to realise their predicament and are pushed to the brink by the horrors they are forced to confront, their uncertainty and fear turns to anger. Rather than find a way to escape the horror, they turn to confront it, to cut their way to the source of the taint. It’s a hard fight right to the end, a struggle that sees them coming up against several diehard zombie favourites as well as several new twists on these, including a truly diabolical use of zombie ants- a stroke of macabre genius I would love to see translated to the big screen one day.

Viking Dead was as much fun as I expected it to be. Come on, its Vikings and zombies! What makes it work once the initial novelty wears off is that their world has a very normal, Viking -era feel to it (no doubt a product of decent research) and a firmly grounded cast of characters which keeps it from straying into the realms of silliness. Bjolf is a great character, and the switches between his and Atli's perspectives work to create a nice picture of life as a warrior in his crew. The villain gets some attention too, though not as lavish, but it helps to provide some background.

The pace is good and while there's plenty of chaotic action, it's gritty and real rather than an over the top gore-fest. The ending might divide opinion, it worked for me.

MFB hosts Viking Week 2011

Mark and I love Vikings.  We love the mythology of these mighty men of steel and action.  We love the thought of the adventures they've had.  The stories and mythologies that have come down to us in the ages past and the retellings of these by authors in our own day.

We admire our modern day authors and movie makers who plunder their imaginations and awaken the campfire gene of storytelling in all of us.

This week is dedicated to the storytellers in our modern time, who tell us the stories of the Vikings.  Of their battles, their conquests and their loves.  But mostly their battles and adventures.

We have a host of authors and stories to share with you.  Come along with us, on the Whale Road to listen to skalds spin their tales of Miklagard, of norns weaving fate, of distant shores and heroism that echoes through the ages.

And just a small note of thanks to our friend Kenda who has once again created our banners for us.  Find her fun blog here and she can be found on twitter as @kmont.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Battle of the Fang by Chris Wraight

It is M32, a thousand years after the Horus Heresy. The Scouring is over and the Imperium at the height of its post-Crusade power. When Magnus the Red is tracked down to Gangava Prime, the Space Wolves hasten to engage the daemon primarch.

Even as Great Wolf Harek Ironhelm closes on his ancient enemy, the Fang on the Space Wolves home world is besieged by a massive force of Thousand Sons. A desperate battle ensues as the skeleton forces of Wolf Lord Vaer Greylock attempt to hold back the attacking hosts before the last of his meagre defences gives in. Though a single Scout ship survives to summon Great Wolf Harek Ironhelm back to Fenris, none of the defenders truly realise the full scale the horror that awaits them, nor what the Battle for the Fang will cost them all.

In simple terms, this is the story of a siege. What ups the ante though is that it's the survivors of the Thousand Sons legion who are laying siege to the Fang, the fortress of the Space Wolves. Their motivation is ostensibly revenge for the destruction of Prospero a thousand years previously (see Prospero Burns), but as ever with the Thousand Sons, there is more to it than meets the eye, for there are secrets hidden in the Fang, secrets that could damn them all.

With the main body of the Wolves haring across the galaxy to lay waste to the planet where Magnus has taken up residence, the Fang is left with a single company of Space Marines to hold off a huge force comprising close to a thousand marines and uncounted legions of their mortal troops, all supported by a powerful fleet of ships and armoured regiments. But the Fang isn't just home to the Wolves and their slumbering heroes, but also the hundreds of native Fenrisians who serve them. And as the mortals are mobilised in the defence of the Fang we get to experience the fury of the battle from their perspective, notably through a father and daughter who serve in two different sectors. It's their experiences and points of view that add depth to the story, providing an insight into a world that only respects martial prowess and highlighting the arrogance of the Wolves alongside the desperate heroism and singleminded determination that makes them who, and what, they are.

Wraight does well to do justice to the Thousand Sons, capturing their bitterness and a sense of a Legion fighting desperately not to lose themselves to the mistakes of their past.

Battle of the Fang is absolutely stuffed with the kind of fast, brutal violence that erupts when mortal enemies collide, particularly when said enemies are 8ft tall genetically engineered killers armed with chainswords. The pace is unrelenting and the tension is maintained as Magnus' plan is revealed and the Wolves are forced back into a last stand. It's the combination of the human perspective, the sympathetic treatment given to the Thousand Sons and his understanding of what makes the Wolves tick makes this much more than a simple action fest and hugely enjoyable. I demolished it in two sittings.

You can read an extract here.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Lion of Cairo by Scott Oden

On the banks of the ageless Nile, from a palace of gold and lapis lazuli, the young Fatimid Caliph Rashid al-Hasan rules as a figurehead over a crumbling empire. Cairo is awash in intrigues. In the shadow of the Gray Mosque, generals and emirs jockey for position under the scheming eyes of the powerful grand vizier, Jalal; in the crowded Souk, these factions use murder and terror to silence their opposition. Egypt bleeds and the scent draws her enemies in like sharks: Shirkuh, the swaggering Kurd who serves the pious and severe Sultan of Damascus, and Amalric, the Christian king of Jerusalem whose insatiable greed knows no bounds.

Yet, the Caliph of Cairo has an unexpected ally - an old man who lives on a remote Asian mountaintop, a place where eagles fear to tread. This benefactor, the Shaykh al-Jabal, the Old Man of the Mountain, holds the ultimate power of life and death over the warring factions of the Moslem world, and he sends his greatest weapon into Egypt.

He sends Caliph Rashid al-Hasan, a single man. An Assassin. The one they call the Emir of the Knife . . .

As a long-standing fan of Scott Oden, having read both Memnon and Men of Bronze long before the existence of MFB, I was really pleased to have received a copy of The Lion of Cairo to read and review.

What struck me the most about Lion of Cairo is the rich detailed settings and how I could close my eyes and feel the heat of the sun and hear the whisper of sandalled feet on marble floors of a Cairene palace.  I never doubted, for a moment, that I had been transported across time to a world filled with beautiful mysterious harem girls, wily politicians involved in devious political plots and where my only possible ally is an assassin with a fearsome reputation.

The thing about the author, Scott Oden, is that he has an eye for detail.  He writes from a wide cinematic viewpoint, then narrows it down minutely, to the extent where you feel you've become thoroughly involved in the characters and the story.

Out of the cast of characters we spend time with in The Lion of Cairo, it is Assad the assassin, the Emir of the Knife that is the most intriguing.  We learn only a few facts about Assad but we come to realise that he is honourable, he keeps his word, he is utterly ruthless, he hates the infidels for invading his country, and that his loyalty to his master and his master's plan is unflinching.  I found myself genuinely liking Assad and rooting for him in his task of assisting the young Caliph.

The other cast of characters, all secondary when compared to Assad, are well defined.  We have the thief lord's daughter, Zaynab, also known as the Gazelle for her beauty and grace, who is playing a very dangerous game as spy and manipulator on a scale she's not entirely prepared for.  We also have a young inhabitant of the harem, Parysatis, whose dedication to the young Caliph, although she has never truly met him, is beyond question.  It is through her overhearing a whispered conversation that the greater extent of the story is set in motion.  She remains a believable constant throughout and I really came to like her.  Yes, she had guts, but she was not kick-ass.  Instead she did things quietly and with the help of her maid Yasmina, they caused the dangerous Jalal, a great deal of trouble.

I'm sad that I can't really explain to you how complex the plot is without falling back on well-worn cliché's.   But it is complex, clever, layered and ultimately believable.  I love Cairo and it has a special place in my heart and know of the places Oden writes about, having had the chance to visit some of them whilst we visited there.  Even now, in modern times, there is a mystique to this city, for all it's noise, chaos and dirt, that just refuses to lie down and give up the ghost and I think this is also why I loved The Lion of Cairo so much.

I found it very interesting that our story is told entirely from a Muslim point of view, where we see the crusaders and the church as the actual invaders and devious manipulators we aren't really shown in other historical novels set during the crusades.  This novel is very much the story of Assad and the young Caliph, but it is also very much a homage to one of the greatest cities on earth.

I cannot recommend this enough - as it has a bit of everything in it, great epic battles, hand to hand combat, budding romance, strife, hatred, evil politicians, magicians, creatures of darkness and light and a tiny tang of fantasy.

Right, I'm off to go and book my holiday to Egypt for next year.  In the meantime, find Scott Oden's websites here - this is his older site and this is his new one. The Lion of Cairo is out now from Bantam Books here in the UK.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Truth About Celia Frost by Paula Rawsthorne

Celia Frost is a freak. At least that’s what everyone thinks. Her life is ruled by a rare disorder that means she could bleed to death from the slightest cut, confining her to a gloomy bubble of “safety”. No friends. No fun. No life. But when a knife attack on Celia has unexpected consequences, her mum reacts strangely. Suddenly they’re on the run. Why is her mum so scared? Someone out there knows – and when they find Celia, she’s going to wish the truth was a lie… A buried secret; a gripping manhunt; a dangerous deceit: what is the truth about Celia Frost?

I have an extra reason to have read TTACF - the writer is a fellow SCBWI BI member and she is one of the winners of the Undiscovered Voices competition SCBWI hosts every 2 years.

I have never met Paula and have only ever spoken to her via Twitter so I had no idea what to expect when I started on The Truth about Celia Frost.

When we meet Celia all we know is that she's to be treated delicately.  She has a condition that will make her bleed to death, should she be cut or hurt in a way that allows her to bleed.

This in itself freaked me out a bit.  Then, when Celia confronts the school bully and gets hurt and rushed to hospital I really did expect Celia to die.  But she doesn't.  Her mum turns up and acts very strangely indeed.  She grabs Celia and they run.  Not for the first time either, we learn.  They run to an estate that sounds as dangerous as any place I can imagine living in.

Celia starts wondering what exactly is wrong with her, the way her mum is acting, you would think she either had the plague or ... not quite sure what!

Slowly, but surely, we are let in on the fact that Celia won't in fact die when she is cut, but there is definitely something going on that sounds dangerous and uncomfortable.  But the reason is withheld for most of the book.  I wanted to rush ahead and figure out what exactly it was that's going on and had to be very strict with myself and read it at a decent pace.

By doing so, I got to enjoy the layered and complex story, written by a strong debut novelist.  Celia's character is not at all what you would expect - I fully expected her to be soft, malleable and a bit of a wimp and initially, there is a bit of that, but as she develops, and finds herself, her strengths and weaknesses and also her place in the world, she really does grow into a very believable, very strong character.

In fact, her character develops into quite a nasty piece of work for a part of the book, and yet, I 100% totally believed and understood why she was acting the way she did.  It sold the story and the writing to me more.

The secondary characters and the sub-plots are handled skilfully and well, you know.  Just go buy the bloody book and read it.  Great storytelling just does not get better than this.

A fast paced contemporary young adult novel written with such skill and ease, I have no hesitation recommending it to readers who would like something different, meatier and with a hint of Kelley Armstrong's YA series, sans the supernatural elements.

Find the official "Celia Frost" website here.

Monday, August 22, 2011

In The Arms of Stone Angels by Jordan Dane

Brenna Nash is a dark and angry 16-year old girl dealing with the aftermath of being the only witness at the death of another young girl two years earlier. She'd been the one who had turned in the killer. And the accused murderer was the only true friend she had, Isaac "White Bird" Henry, a half-breed outcast of the Euchee tribe not much older than she is. Now years later, Brenna is forced to return to the small town of Shawano, Oklahoma where her ordeal happened.

And Shawano is the last place Brenna wants to be.

I picked up a copy of In The Arms of Stone Angels during one of my visits to Foyles. I read it cover to cover in a single night. I put it down and wondered what I thought about it.

Brenna's character is a strange, conflicted one. On the one hand you feel bad for her as she's the victim of some severe bullying. On the other hand you can't quite believe she tattled on her best friend, sending him up for murdering a girl, when there was so much doubt surrounding the case in the first instance.

Now that she's come back to Shawano with her mum, after the death of her grandmother, Brenna has to face reality. That she may have done a very bad thing, allowing her best friend to be locked up. She wants to make some kind of amends and in doing so, discovers that White Bird did not in fact stand trial because he's been taken into psychiatric care. He had been found as he knelt over the body of the dead girl, a bloody knife in his hands, deep in some kind of trance. And he's not woken from that trance for two years. He is basically catatonic so the case cannot go to trial as there is no way to interrogate him.

Brenna runs foul of the local bullies at school and is treated quite badly. In fact, there is a scene in the book that almost had me stop reading, it disturbed me so much. But I took a break of an hour and went back to it. With her running foul of the bullies, she also has some altercations with the local sherrif and the one deputy. The sherrif considers her a risk to the community and dislikes both her and her mum and goes out of his way to be particularly cutting to them both. Even when their home gets assaulted by a group of local kids, the sherrif basically blames Brenna and her mum for instigating it, for coming back to town.

Brenna goes to visit White Bird at the hospital / care home and is seen by her overseeing physician who confronts her during her second visit, trying to blackmail her to tell him how she managed to get White Bird to react to her. And I'll stop there with the account because there is so much more to this story, that swings between everyday reality, whilst being touched with a sense of the supernatural.

As I'm writing this, and I'm thinking about the story, I realise the many layers there are to it. Brenna's self-discovery of her own abilities and the strength she finds in herself is key. But then so is the underlying racism in the community of the town itself, as well as the racism within the Euchee tribe for mistreating a young questing half-breed. It is a very quiet comment on the great many things that boil beneath the surface of any small town in any part of the world and how one or two people have to pay the consequences when things get out of hand.

I can't say that I loved the book. I enjoyed it and thought it was well written but I think it disturbed me more than I suspected it might. I'd encourage others to read it, to see what they think of it because the book is definitely a conversation piece. But it made me feel deeply uncomfortable and I did cry in the end and I felt such anger and sadness at how things worked out. I will definitely buy Jordan Dane's other YA titles and I'm keeping ITAOSA on my bookshelf because I suspect it is a book I will need to reread very soon.

Friday, August 19, 2011

On Books, Luck and Michelle Harrison

I'm a huge lover of books, obviously. Like most bloggers I get a bit overcome in bookshops and want nothing more than to take them home and look at them on my shelves. However, I also work in a library and on occasions I read a book that's so wonderful that I want everyone else to read it too. So, back in 2009, The Thirteen Treasures by Michelle Harrison came out which I read and loved. I went to work and was raving about it but when I checked our stock it was pretty low and the reservation list was long. I donated my copy to the library and often saw it passing through to new readers. I was happy that it was so popular but also felt a bit of a twinge as I sort of wanted it back at home, with me.

The thing is I firmly believe that books are made to be read and passed around, loved by new people so they can sometimes pass into book legend as a classic. So, the more dog-eared my copy became on each visit to my library I knew that it was on that journey. I did the same with the follow up, The Thirteen Curses, because I thought it should join its friend visiting homes. The last copy I kept because I had it signed and I only have so much willpower. Also, due to its success, more copies were ordered this time so I didn't feel too guilty.

But then the US copies came out and they were *gasp* hardback, beautiful and very shiny.

I saw a competition to win BOTH copies on Michelle's newsletter which I entered and then promptly forgot. But then I won!!! They arrived last week and are absolutely stunning, signed and dedicated to me. I don't think there's anything wonderfully deep about this piece of kismet but sometimes good things happen. I can stop staring woefully at my old copies which are still doing the rounds and clasp these new ones to me. These are staying with me, no discussion, the end.

I'd like to say a massive thank you to Michelle Harrison for running the giveaway. Seriously, the last thing I won was a robot on Blue Peter which was great and everything but I was nine so … enough said.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

An Exposé - The Night Circus

I'm thinking this may become a bit of a feature on MFB - me geeing out over pretty books that I've received / bought.

I received a copy of Erin Morgenstern's highly anticipated novel: The Night Circus.

It may mean nothing to you, dear reader, but let me tell you something.  The moment I tore open the envelope and the book slithered out into my hands, I gasped out loud.  My colleague at work who sits behind me checked to make sure I was okay.  I didn't hear him, until he called my name for the third time.  I was mesmerised by the pretty.

It has been a very long time since I've seen anything as gorgeous as The Night Circus.

But here are some photos I've taken to try and convey to you how gorgeous it is.

The Front Cover 

The pages! Black edged with a red silk place ribbon! 

The back of it - whimsical and magical

As you open the book, you are met by these hats.  I want one. 

I just love the feel of the pages, thicker creamy paper

The spine, uncovered 

How fairy tale and magic?

The back page of the dust flap

The feel of the book in your hands is solid, belying it's whimsical look.  The paper used is thicker than usual and has a rough texture.  The whole package makes me feel like I've received a very precious and unique gift.  And I think that is the whole idea.  The packaging is selling the story, before I've even read the first word.  I can't wait to read it!  It's published on the 15th September 2011.  I think I'll end up getting a "reading copy" - effectively keeping one copy utterly pristine.  What? You mean you don't do the same thing?

The write up for The Night Circus is:

In 1886 a mysterious travelling circus becomes an international sensation. Open only at night, constructed entirely in black and white, the Cirque des Rêves delights all who wander its circular paths and warm themselves at its bonfire. There are contortionists, performing cats, carousels and illusionists – all the trappings of an ordinary circus. But this is no conventional spectacle. Some tents contain clouds, some ice.
The circus seems almost to cast a spell over its aficionados, who call themselves the rêveurs – the dreamers. And who is the sinister man in the grey suit who watches over it all? Behind the scenes a dangerous game is being played out by two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who, at the behest of their masters, are forced to test the very limits of the imagination – and of love.

I'm smitten. Ana from The Booksmugglers saw my tweets earlier yesterday and said she's reading this at the moment and loving it. 'Nuff said, right?

Find the official The Night Circus website (UK) here. The artist is Vania Zouravilov and you can find the agency and his artwork portfolio here.  Please note that some of the images contain nudity.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Born at Midnight by CC Hunter

Kylie Galen has had a lot of crap tossed in her lap lately. Her parents are getting a divorce for who the heck knows why. Her boyfriend broke up with her because she wouldn't put out. And her grandmother died because . . . well, older people do that. But now, Kylie's acquired a stalker and she hasn't a clue what he wants or how to get rid of him . . . and she really wants to get rid of him because apparently she's the only one who sees him. Thinking she may be losing it, her parents send her off to see a psychologist who gets Kylie sent to Shadow Falls Camp. Kylie and her parents think it's a camp for troubled teens.

They thought wrong.

Kylie's surrounded by vampires, werewolves, fairies, witches and shapeshifters. And if she believes what they tell her, she's one of them. They're just not sure exactly how she fits in. As Kylie struggles to cope with the realization that these creatures even exist, and the fact that she might not be human, she's got two hot guys, a werewolf and a half-fairy vying for her attention. And they can just keep vying. Kylie's determined that before she lets her heart loose on love, she needs to unearth the truth. What does the ghost want? Who can and can't she trust? And most of all . . . What is she?

I honestly rolled my eyes when I read the above synopsis.  But then Neil from Foyles slapped me hard and pressed the book in my hands and said: read it, you opinionated cow.  And so I did.  In one sitting.

Well written, well plotted, Ms. Hunter has given us a Camp Halfblood for more mature readers.  it could so easily have fallen by the wayside and been "another school populated by supernatural creatures" but what rescues Born at Midnight from the doldrums is the main character, Kylie.  She is a cool heroine, a girl I'd like to be mates with, someone I can identify with.  She's desperately doing her best to fit in but things just aren't working out for her.

When she's sent to this camp for summer she is more than just a bit rebellious but is soon set straight by the camp managers who waste no time telling her what's what.  And the biggest mystery is that no one is quite sure what Kylie is.  There are all manner of creatures at the camp, yet no one is able to detect what sort of creature Kylie is. This makes for great dramatic inner conflict and as Kylie sets out trying to figure this out, she has to cope with a vampiric room mate and a witchy one too.  The three girls couldn't be more different yet because of their differences, they eventually bond...tentatively.

I love that Kylie's quest to figure out who she is, to get to the truth of it, isn't the only strand to the story.  There is a mystery with regards to the adjoining nature reserve and it's woven very neatly into the overall storyline of Born at Midnight.  Good, strong, intelligent and clever writing.  I approve.

I liked that there was shouting and angst and stress. The characters felt real, what they get up to was genuine and their decisions they made were stupid and totally real.  It just felt honest and real, even though the characters were wholly or partly supernatural.  As for the two love interests - wow.  Hot! I genuinely cannot decide who I prefer so will be a fence-sitter on this one.  Sorry.

I found myself visiting Ms. Hunter's website and am SO pleased that there are more to this series as I genuinely and looking forward to reading them.  Awake at Dawn looks like it's being released towards October this year.  Perfect.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Pottermore Experience

I love Harry Potter enough to be more than a little gutted that the last film has been and gone. Like so many of us, I've waited at midnight to buy the books, seen the films and pondered upon which house I'd be sorted into. So when Pottermore was announced I had mixed feelings. Sad that the news didn't herald a new book (I know, I know, it's never going to happen) but excited to see what J.K. Rowling had up her sleeve. So when I was offered a chance to go in on the first day I was overjoyed and a bit hysterical.

The wait for that email seemed to go on forever but at last I was in. My first impressions is that a serious amount of work has gone into Pottermore. It's visually stunning and the artwork is beautiful. You can pan in on each page which reveals more interactive material each time, areas which were once in the distance become the foreground. Once in you start at the Dursley's and follow Harry through receiving his letter to shopping at Diagon Alley. Diagon Alley is like a dream, it's just as I'd imagined it in the books.

After a trip to Gringotts to get sorted for cash you're free to shop. I spent ages trying to decide which pet to get - seriously, there's a lot of choice. There's a shopping list of course and stuff to get. I adored my visit to Ollivander's Wand Shop where you answer a series of questions to enable your wand to choose you (British Oak, 14.5 inches, phoenix feather core, slightly springy). Before you know it you're on Platform nine and three quarters and off to Hogwarts.

Once at Hogwarts it's time to get sorted. You get to do this once and once only. First you watch a video from J.K. Rowling and then answer a set of questions some of which don't seem to point to any one house. I was expected to get sorted in Ravenclaw and was wondering if I might secretly want to be in Slytherin if only to get a proper look at their common room. Miraculously and quite to my surprise I was sorted into Gryffindor - yay! Once sorted you can then earn points for your house by finding things, duelling and other such fabulousness. Here's a look at what a your gateway page would look life if you were in Slytherin. This is your map, it tells you where you are in the story, messages and friend requests and enables you to enter your trunk, your vault at Gringotts and head off to Diagon Alley to do a bit of shopping. This is also where you can look at information you've marked as a favourite so you don't have to hunt around for it later. Quite a cool little page methinks. Mine's Gryffindor red though.

For me though the real highlight of Pottermore is the extra material. The sheer volume of back story and research that JK Rowling has done is staggering. I was touched by Minerva McGonagall's bittersweet story but I was also able to find out more about her parents, grandparents plus her post Deathly Hallows life (which made me a bit teary). The motivations of Professor Quirrel is also available alongside a thorough piece on the types of wood and cores used for wands. Fans of Ollivander will be able to discover the history of wand production and how he revolutionised the practice. We've always known that Ollivander was regarded as one of the best wand makers but now we know why.

I found Pottermore incredibly distracting, diverting and beautiful. I think I spent a solid five hours on there yesterday, thankful that it was my day off work. I discovered that I'm seriously rubbish at potions making (obviously Slytherin wasn't for me after all). If you're looking for something to enrich the world of the books then this is it. Honestly though, actually reading the books will make the whole Pottermore experience more alive. I've no doubt that when everyone's able to enter in October it'll be a massive success I'm looking forward to investigating the rest of the books as they become available in January. Until then I need to find my last chocolate frog card so If you'll excuse me I'll be somewhere around chapters nine to fifteen.

The Misfits by James Howe

Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our spirit.

Bobby, Skeezie, Addie and Joe have been called names for as long as they can remember.  They are the misfits.  Now, a school election gives them the chance to make a stand - to show how funny, clever and complex they really are.

I can't remember why or how I came by this copy of The Misfits.  I suspect it was a charity shop purchase from last year or so, and I cannot begin to explain to you how much I loved reading it.

In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I wish I could forget reading it completely, so that I can read it again and experience it again for the first time.

Hilariously funny, painfully honest and lip wobblingly teary, The Misfits blew my socks off.  I've read 2 other authors in the past who have affected me this much: Sherman Alexie and Francisco X Stork.  Two authors whom I hold in very high esteem.  And now I have another name to add to my little list of "must own everything they have ever written and will ever write".

But onto my review: Addie is sort of the defacto leader of The Misfits.  Although they don't call themselves that, they are The Gang of Five, even if they only have four members.  It keeps them mysterious, you see? She decides, one morning at school, to refuse to stand up to say the Pledge of Allegiance, claiming that she refuses to do so because there really is no freedom of speech, no real equality in their country.  This gets her sent to the principal's office.

This small act sets the small group of friends up to create their own group for the students to vote for - initially it was going to be called The Freedom Party, but Bobby has the bright idea, whilst they were sitting in the cafeteria during lunch the one day to realise that no, The Freedom Party is not the right thing after all.  They are to be called The No Name Party - because everyone at school gets called names: loser, faggot, fairy, fatty, beanpole, dweeb, dork, idiot.  And it is something that everyone can identify with, especially as name-calling is part of bullying.

The "political" machinations is only part of The Misfits' story.  Bobby the fat one" has this great relationship with his dad.  His mum had died when he was much younger and it clearly has affected him.  Bobby is also our narrator and it is through his eyes and his insights that we learn about everyone in the group.

Addie is "know-all, beanpole" who comes across as super bossy and well, a know it all, but she is a great character.  Super passionate about causes, she sometimes doesn't realise that her causes she wants to stand up for can be misinterpreted.

Joe is the "fairy, faggot" and his character is the sweetest, most charming of them all.  There is an amazing scene where they have just spent the whole afternoon and evening painting signs to put up at school, when everyone goes home and it is only Joe and Skeezie and Bobby hanging out.  And Joe has to break it to Skeezie that he is in  Skeezie questions him, wanting to know how he knows.  And Joe points to everything in his room, like the flamingo cushion on his bed and his paint scheme and slowly Skeezie gets it, but then, instead of reacting negatively to his young friend coming out, he says this: (and I apologise for putting the picture in here, I've never done it before, but this is probably my most treasured page in any book)

It is superb and I was laughing and crying at the same time.

Skeezie is the one everyone thinks is a waste of space, a loser, the villain, mostly because he dresses like a reject from an sixties gangster movie, complete with leather jacket and dirty jeans.  Skeezie is a superb character, really a romantic at heart, he maintains his tough nut outer shell and is probably the character most boys will be able to relate to.  He's not stupid, just bored.

The four of them, working together as a team, is superb.  Bobby tells us how they came together as friends and what they've been through.  But the story is about facing the future and realising bigger things along with the smaller things.

I cannot recommend this book enough - it is funny, sad, diverse, wild, subversive, fabulous and has instantly become one of my favourite books I've ever read.  I am pleased I did pick it up because it is books like this that lifts your heart and soul, just that bit on days when you need it most.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Defenders of Ulthuan and Sons of Ellyrion by Graham McNeill

Defenders of Ulthuan

The high elves have long been the protectors of the Warhammer World, and their homeland of Ulthuan is known for the powerful magic that surrounds it. At the heart of Ulthuan lies a magical vortex, and the mages who created it remain trapped in a space out of time, endlessly working the spell that keeps the world from becoming a seething Realm of Chaos.

When Ulthuan comes under attack from the forces of Chaos and dark elves led by the Witch King and the hag sorceress, Morathi, the high elves must hold firm or face disastrous consequences.

Defenders opens strongly, quickly setting up the various threads that will combine to form the core of the story, which spans the final weeks before the Dark Elves launch their invasion of Ulthuan, the home of the High Elves.

Central to the story is the relationship between the two main characters, the brothers Eldain and Caelir, which is exlored and expanded on throughout the novel, giving them a depth and complexity that befits personalities that have been maturing for centuries, yet who still suffer from flaws and vulnerabilities that we can relate to. Eldain and Caelir set out on their respective quests across Ulthuan, and McNeill uses the opportunity to bring Ulthuan to life, from the soaring mountains to the endless plains and forests basking in a gentle, endless summer, all in all an idyllic, utopian setting. Importantly, he also manages to put across how intrinsically magical it is, a factor which is central to understanding the threat posed by Morathi.

Admittedly I did get to a point where I was having to grit my teeth at every mention of the Elves' beauty and impossible grace as they wafted across picture perfect landscapes. Fortunately it's a relatively short lived episode and the increasing tension as Morathi's plans begin to swing into motion cancels it out. What you're left with though is a clear image of what is at stake for the High Elves.

Defenders quickly builds up to a shocking cliffhanger ending, one which left me desperate to get home and start the sequel, Sons of Ellyrion.

SoE opens with the repercussions of Caelir's actions shaking Ulthuan even as the Dark Elf invasion gathers pace. As the title suggests, the brothers take central stage again, albeit that this time they share it with the heroes of their age - Tyrion, Imrik and Teclis. But there's carnage aplenty for each of them to deal with as the dark elves push deep into Ulthuan, slaughtering the living and despoiling the land, so it never feels crowded. The action is handled very well and is both plentiful and consistently savage as the High Elves reel under the onslaught.

These are very much High Elf novels, and the Dark Elves aren't given much 'screen time' outside of burning and killing their way across the land. Morathi herself seems to do little more than bathe in blood and gloat about her own evil genius. However, her evil genius is just that (with a generous helping of insanity) and her actions imperil not just Ulthuan but the whole of the old world. Eldain and Caelir are drawn into a desperate attempt to thwart her twisted ambition, and it's here that the care McNeill has put into making us care about these characters pays off, crowning the story with an emotional and bittersweet conclusion.

I finished both novels in a matter of days. Graham McNeill knows how to spin a story, and he's in top form with these. He manages to carry across a real feel for the Elven homeland and their society, whilst keeping it accessible to casual readers and without getting bogged down in too much exposition. You grow to care about the characters, and cheer the 'fuck yeah!' moments when they eventually happen amidst the bloody carnage (of which there's plenty). It's solid, satisfying fantasy action and a stark reminder why he gets to have the epithet 'NYT bestselling author' on the cover.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

How Darth Vader Changed My Life or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Embrace The Dark Side

I always like the bad guys - in movies and in books.  When Bloomsbury offered us the Mark Walden blog tour for the new release of his novel: Aftershock, as part of the HIVE series of books, and they told me he wanted to write us an article about the badass Darth Vader, we were smitten. Yes, we are that easy.

Check out Mark's article:

How Darth Vader Changed My Life or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Embrace The Dark Side

It's 1977, I'm in a cinema. It's such a long time ago that people on one side of the cinema are allowed to smoke while watching the film. We're talking ancient history here folks. I've just watched these giant yellow letters scrolling up the screen and then a spaceship flies over my head being chased by another giant triangular space ship. To my five year old brain this is immediate sensory overload. Up to this point my idea of special effects was Tom Baker running down a wobbly corridor being chased by a monster that was clearly made from the contents of the bin behind the studio. I'm fairly sure my mouth was already hanging open in awe at that point but, little did I know that the best was yet to come.

I watched enthralled as a group of frightened looking soldiers with laser guns took up positions in a bright white corridor, levelling their weapons at the door at the far end of the passage. What could they possibly be so scared of, I wondered to myself. They had laser guns for goodness sake, (yes I know they're called blasters but at that point they were just laser guns) what could possibly worry someone with a laser gun? I had no idea at the time that I was about to get my answer.

The door exploded in a magnesium-bright flash and men, possibly robots, my five year old brain told me, in gleaming white armour burst through the door blasters blasting. It's quite possible at this point that my mouth was hanging so far open that my jaw had actually dislocated. There may even have been drool.

Anyway, the frightened soldiers fell before this swarm of men/robots with their skull-faced helmets, clearing the way for what had to rate as one of the greatest entrances in cinematic history. The smoke cleared and a figure emerged. Clad in gleaming black armour, his cloak billowing behind him, like some kind of cross between a robot, a samurai and a space-ninja.

Darth Vader.

The name says it all really. He's become such an icon of villainy since that we almost take him for granted but, for five year old me, he was and still is, the greatest villain ever. You can keep your sparkling vampires, give me a force-choking, Kenobi slicing, bit of Vader action any day of the week. Few characters have become so globally infamous and so instantly recognised and that's because there's more to Vader than just your standard moustache-twirling villain. He's a tragic figure, the fallen hero who will ultimately find redemption and return to the light but there's going to be some proper text book bad guy behaviour before we get there.

Some might argue that there are better villains but, my five year old self and my thirty eight year old self for that matter have only one thing to say to those doubters.

I find your lack of faith disturbing........

Be sure to check out Mark's facebook page.

Competition Time:

We have 3 sets of the entire series to be won, along with a t-shirt, rucksack and wristbands.  The rules are:

1.  UK only
2.  Winners will be announced on 17th August 2011
3.  Comment below - tell us what your evil spy name would be - and make sure to somehow add in your twitter name / email addy (disguised) so we can track you if you win.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Primeval: Extinction Event by Dan Abnett

When an Entelodon goes on the rampage down Oxford Street in Central London, causing untold damage and loss of life, Cutter decides to investigate a new approach to tackling the anomalies.  However, a violent encounter with a mysterious Russian scientist exposes the team to a terrifying new complication. 

When Cutter, Abby and Connor disappear without a trace, Lester and Jenny must use every trick in the book to try and track them down. 

I've not read a tie-in novel for the longest time.  I, of course know of Primeval, have watched the occasional episodes, and I like what I've seen, but we've not sat down to watch the various series from start to finish.  However, this did not preclude me from thoroughly enjoying this action packed novel by MFB favourite, Dan Abnett.

Now, Dan is one of Mark's favourite authors, but I called dibs on Extinction Event when it came in because I really wanted to read a Dan Abnett novel for myself.  And bloody hell - I loved it.  I loved the easy to read writing, the capable way Mr. Abnett had of playing a bit of catch-up with the reader to bring them up to speed with what's going on in the Primeval universe, and the overall "true-ness" to the feel of the characters whom I know briefly from TV.

There is a bit of science thrown in, to keep it meaty enough and action galore with some great fight and running-away scenes for good measure.

Part of the novel takes place in Siberia, which is where Cutter, Connor and Abby are taken by the Russian who kidnaps them.  Slowly but surely the three piece together the reason why they are there: an anomaly so large it is difficult to comprehend, has been torn open, allowing deadly late cretaceous dinosaurs to come through, including things like a couple of friendlies like the T-Rex and some Torosauruses.  But there is more to the anomaly than just creatures coming through, something else, massive and hugely threatening to the world on both sides of the anomaly and the team have to figure out - and quickly - how to prevent it from happening or something!

Tense, cinematic and very believable, Extinction Event freaked me out a little.  It is a clever, believable story and it had me rushing through my reading, wondering how it would be solved. Obviously, I won't be telling you, that's cheating, but if you've not ever read a tie-in novel before, and even if you don't know Primeval, I cannot recommend Extinction Event enough.  It is written within the world of a known cast of characters and various events, yet it could easily be a standalone and turned into a big screen adaptation.

I loved that it all felt real to me - that I managed to understand the characters better and that you have this almost personal interaction with them, something you don't get when watching a tv show.  I went searching for a decent cover picture but instead found this fantastic review instead, which I'm linking to because it is written by someone who does not know Dan Abnett at all or the TV show.  Also, it is a bloody spiffy review.  And funny.

Find Dan Abnett's blog here.  Primeval: Extinction Event has been out since January this year from Titan Books  and I apologise profusely for being rubbish and not reviewing it sooner.  The appetite has been whetted.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Cover Reveal - Daughter of Smoke and Bone

We don't do this often, but in this instance we're doing the cover reveal for Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor because

a.  The book is awesome
b.  The cover is wow
c.  We have become smitten with Laini Taylor
d.  We have to share it because it is just so gorram pretty

Hardback Cover

Full Cover - Hardback

Daughter of Smoke and Bone will launch on September 29th and is the first in a trilogy of. The book tells the story of an angel who fell in love with a devil. It did not end well.

Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky. In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grows dangerously low. And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war.

Meet Kaoru. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters and demons that delight and enthral those around her; she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands”; she speaks many languages – not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that colour.

Her life straddles two worlds: the human and a place that is Elsewhere. She has never really known which one is her true home, but now the doors to Elsewhere closing . . .Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out..

Fans of well written urban fantasy, this book is for you.  It has great characters, an amazing setting (Prague and ... other places), action, adventure, the battle between good and evil, the blurring of lines between good and evil, angels, fallen angels, devils, creatures from mythology, a heroine you fall for 100% and a story you will yourself to be true.  It's been a long time since a book has stayed with me this long.  I cannot wait to share it wtih you.

Pre-order it, you won't regret it. 

The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall by Mary Downing Hahn


Twelve-year-old orphan Florence looks forward to a new life with her great-uncle and great-aunt at Crutchfield Hall, an old manor house in the English countryside. But she doesn’t expect the ghost of her cousin Sophia, who haunts the cavernous rooms and dimly lit hallways of Crutchfield and concocts a plan to use Florence to help her achieve her murderous goals. Will Florence be able to convince the others in the household of the imminent danger and stop Sophia before it’s too late?

I bought this book as an impulse purchase whilst at Foyles the other month. It looked intriguing but was seriously tiny for the price - just one hundred and fifty pages. But that sort of thing never stopped The Woman in Black so I took the plunge. Florence is a sweet little thing, more used to rough treatment at the orphanage where she has spent the last seven years being freezing and half-starved. The Gothic overtones are present from the beginning; lonely girl on a coach, the windswept countryside, the sinister aunt, the huge and overbearing house. I totally lapped all this up. Reading on the train on my way home I was completely on Florence's side as she investigates her Uncle's study only to break a picture frame and drip blood onto the likeness of Sophia (who has died). In trouble again and seeking solace with the servants Sophia finds that something, or someone, is following her.

Sophia soon makes herself known to Florence and begins to twist her to her will. Poor Florence is also being bullied by the awful aunt who worshipped Sophia. As time progresses Florence realises that both she and the rest of the household are in real danger and sets about trying to stop Sophia's plans. The action is fast moving and always exciting. I did feel though that, although I bought this from the young adult section it would probably suit a confident (and not easily scared) younger reader.

This book is gripping. The spookiness builds and when I heard a knocking behind me on the train I jumped and spent a couple of minutes trying to work out where the noise had come from. A quick read, I finished it that night at quarter to twelve. I put the book under my bed and switched off the light. The ending was eerie enough for me to consider moving the book further away, as if keeping it beneath me would bring something out in the dark. I'll definitely be seeking out more books by this author.