Thursday, December 31, 2009

MFB Best of 2009 - Part II : Mark's choices

After much consideration, punctuated by several cups of tea and gnawed nails, I’ve chosen these (in no particular order- trying to rank them would have given me a nosebleed) as my favourite books for 2009:-

1. The Night Angel Trilogy - Brent Weeks.

2. The First Law Trilogy – Joe Abercrombie.

3. Empire & Heldenhammer – Graham McNeill.

4. The Garbage Man - Joseph D' Lacey.

5. Biohell – Andy Remic.

6. The Enemy – Charlie Higson.

7. Skarlet – Thomas Emson.

8. The Grey Knights Omnibus - Ben Counter.

9. Nights of Villjamur – Mark Charan Newton.

10. The Hunger Games & Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins.

11. The Name of the Wind - Patrick Rothfuss.

Ok, yes, there are 11 (technically 17, but I’ve counted series / trilogies as one as, where possible, I read these back to back) rather than the traditional 10 or 12, but it works for me.

These 11 dragged me into their respective worlds hook, line and sinker- they’re the books I happily devoured rather than read. I’m a simple creature when it comes to fiction- I want to be entertained, and I want the story to engage me on an emotional level- I want to rage, cheer and weep. I want to be exhausted -sated- when I reach The End.

These guys delivered the goods and left me wanting more.

MFB Best of 2009 - Liz's Choices

It's been an incredible year, stuffed full of reading goodness and it's been utter hell deciding what to choose for my Best of 09.

But it's been done and I'm listing them in no particular order. Twelve books were chosen, one from each month of my reviews.

  • 13 Treasures by Michelle Harrison: I had the chance to read this before a lot of other people and I fell in love with Michelle's writing. I remember nagging S&S for an interview with this debut author whom I have subsequently met. As we speak, her second novel: 13 Curses is lying next to me to finish. She also won the Waterstones Children's Book Prize.
  • Stormcaller by Tom Lloyd: I love this book so much. I've not read much epic fantasy this year which I'm very sad about but I can say - hand on heart - that Stormcaller blew me away with its plotting, character development and world-building. Tom Lloyd is an unsung genius and I'd urge you to pick up a copy and fall in love with his writing.
  • Thicker than Water by Mike Carey: Wow. As a big fan of Mike Carey and his Felix Castor novels I expected big things from him in Thicker than Water but holy smokes, I did not expect this. Mike took us to places dark and awful and he left us gasping on the precipice as we realised what Fix has to do in the follow-up novels. This was when I realised for reals what a master Mike is when it comes to plotting. And driving his readers nuts.
  • If I Stay by Gayle Forman: I think I went through about 2 boxes of Cleanex reading this elegantly written novel about a girl who has the decision before her as she lies broken and torn in a coma: does she stay here with her friends and her grandparents or does she go, move on, to be with her parents and brother in the afterlife? Beautifully written, with style and grace, I felt flattened and uplifted at the same time reading this one. I'd recommend it heartily.
  • The Tiger Warrior by David Gibbins: I am a big fan of Mr. G - he writes cracking adventure thrillers and I've been honoured to be included in some email correspondence with him. I've read all his other books, even before I started blogging - yes, I know, back in the dark ages - but this one represents a turning point in his writing and my reading, I think. The novel is a lot more personal, focussing heavily on relationships, friendships and familial responsibility. Not a lot of action thrillers can pull off good character development but The Tiger Warrior did that in spades. If you've not read this genre before, you can do worse than start here.
  • Black & White by Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge: These two very talented authors got to do something most of us only dream about: write a superhero novel AND pull it off successfully. This copy refers to the copy published over in the States but wait! the UK copy will soon be published here so you get to support them directly. Well written, with interesting main characters, you get drawn into the two MC's quest for the truth and realise that there never is just black or white.
  • The Fire King by Marjorie M Liu: ha! Tiny book that blew my socks off. Who knew I could fall so heavily for an author through her writing? Intense and sexy does not begin to describe The Fire King. Set in farflung places the author takes us on a journey so unthinkable it leaves you reeling. I loved it. In fact, it's probably going to turn into one of those books you pick up to read and re-read because it's just so damn good.
  • Girl from Mars by Julie Cohen: this was my first ever Little Black Dress book and I have to say, I had reservations! I am not really a girly girl book reader but this pocket-sized book with the cute alien on the front swept me off my feet, showing me that I should for once and all shove my preconceptions in my pocket and just get reading already! Wonderfully quirky, set in the world of graphic novels and other creative types, GFM taught me about friendships and how no matter what, you should always stay true to your dreams. Definitely a big favourite!
  • Troubadour by Mary Hoffman: Ms. Hoffman has this remarkable talent as a writer. She writes beautifully, with strong imagery and subtlety. I loved Troubadour so much I gave my hardback copy away to share with the world. Dealing with the Cathars in medieval times, their persecution and the atrocities committed against them, other French citizens and Jews, this slender novel packs a huge punch and had me sniffling into a hanky several times, because of its poignancy.
  • Spook's Apprentice by Joseph Delaney: who said that a) children's books can't be scary and b) written in a very mature way? Mr. Delaney blew my socks off with Spook's Apprentice. What struck me most - and this I told his publicity person - is how adult the book seemed to me. There was no molly coddling the main character - the horror of his new position as the Spook's Apprentice was this slow dawning realisation which was handled very well. I loved it so much I got all the other books too and I'm looking forward to working my way through them.
  • Hattori Hachi by Jane Prowse: here is the female role model all girls need. Hachi kicks butt and takes no prisoners. I loved her development as a character and the practically insurmountable odds that she overcomes to save the day - but there is always a price. This is Karate Kid for a new generation but so much cooler than Daniel-san could ever have hoped to be.
  • The Crowfield Curse by Pat Walsh - I feel a bit sneaky adding this one in as it's not been released yet but hey, this is my list, okay? Fantastically atmospheric and creepy, The Crowfield Curse asks the question: what would you do if you knew where an angel was buried? Mixing religion, fairies and superstition, this novel has to be read in winter time. In fact, it just has to be read as it is that bloody good!
These are my twelve topmost favourite books of 2009 as reviewed on MFB - I've not looked at reviews I've done elsewhere but as an aside, I'd like to mention another title I thoroughly enjoyed called Age of Ra by James Lovegrove - a grand book, military sci fi for people (like me) who don't usually do military sci-fi.

I think I have been quite lucky this year in that the majority of books I've read have been good / I've been able to see where the author was going and "get" what they were doing. There were some books I let slide after a while because they didn't hold my interest but these are still on my shelves. I'll give these another go to see if I can get into them, if not, off they go to charity shops!

Something I've thought about before but what I've confirmed and discovered in 2009 is that I'm very much a seasonal reader. Darker books for the darker months and lighter books for spring and summer. Is that odd? Do other people do this too?

What does 2010 hold for MFB?

I have no idea. No, I'm kidding. Of course I've got an inkling. I'd like to run more competitions, hopefully more international comps too. I want to concentrate on various genres this year, specifically fantasy as I feel I'm far behind with what's come out this year and looking at catalogues for 2010 we are due a bumper crop of some really good new titles. I'm also going to challenge myself to read sci-fi. I know, I know - please don't laugh at me openly - but I'm going to try. I also want to tackle more non-fiction, some straight contemporary (and maybe literary) fiction. Of course I'll still be championing kids books - all ages, all genres. I love them and can in all honesty say I can probably set up an entire blog dedicated to kids books on their own. Another big thing for me in 2010 will be: graphic novels. I think both Mark and I are keen to get stuck into more of them. We have quite a few but I suspect there is always space for more. There will be interviews and guest blogs too. Oh and "author of the month" events too, watch this space!

I'm not sure about other bloggers/reviewers but 2010 has already started for me. I've already started reading and reviewing books for the new year and it's an odd thing because it completely screws up your perception of Time. I feel a bit Dr. Who but hopefully with better hair. And yes, as for anyone who has actually been to my house, can testify: we do live in the Tardis. Mark should get a job working for the Jenga factory as NO ONE I've met can pack and stack books like he can.

In Jan/Feb Mark and I will be heading off to South Africa for a bit of a holiday. I'll be meeting up with Dave Brendon from Galaxy Reads to talk books and I'm looking forward to meeting my online buddy. It's going to be grand. And yes, there will be incriminating pictures.

To everyone reading this, to my old mates on here, thank you so much for your continued support. You guys have been amazing. To my new friends I've made this year via the blog and Twitter, I'm so pleased that I've had the chance to do so. Stick around for more stuff from us in 2010.

And if there is one wish I can make (get your hankies out!) for 2010 it is for everyone who reads this blog to put a hand in their pocket and to buy at least one book a month from an independent bookseller - if it's online or on your high street. These guys really need our help. Help them thrive so that they don't lose their income and we have somewhere else to hang out and talk books with people who love books as much as we do.

Farewell to 2009 and hello 2010, you beautiful thing!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Raven's Flight - Gav Thorpe

After the horrors of the Dropsite Massacre, Corax and his mighty Raven Guard face a desperate struggle to survive in the caves and mountains of Isstvan V. Escape from the roaming Chaos Legions seems impossible.

Meanwhile, Colonel Valerius of the Imperial army begins suffering horrific dreams, believing the Raven Guard to be in trouble – are such nightmares enough to initiate a daring rescue?

The decimated Legion must hold out against the forces of the World Eaters long enough to reach an improbable salvation and escape this hostile world.


Hostile world? More like a deathtrap. The Horus Heresy culminated in the assault on Terra, but for me the Dropsite Massacre stands out as the greater, more bitter betrayal- the first open conflict between the Space Marine chapters. With meticulous planning, the Warmaster Horus and the Legions he had swayed to his cause launched a lethal assault on those who remained loyal to the Emperor. It’s a devastating action, both in terms of the lives lost and that it marked the end of the Great Crusade and everything it stood for.

I was pleased to see that it was being read by Toby Longworth- I’d really enjoyed his reading of James Swallow’s Heart of Rage earlier this year, and I wasn’t disappointed this time either. The characters are distinct and his enunciation is bang on target throughout.

The background effects add to the atmosphere but are never allowed to become intrusive, which lends them more weight when they are employed.

The pace soon picks up as the action switches to the Raven Guard on Isstvan- the action comes thick and fast, with much of the carnage seen from Corax’s perspective and it’s quite a ride when battle is joined. The action, while gripping and bloody, is balanced out by the poignancy of the situation as the fallout of the massacre becomes apparent.

There’s a lot crammed into the 75 minute running time but this flies by, testament to both Toby’s delivery and Gav’s writing. It’s fun and entertaining in its own right, but works best as a supplement the Horus Heresy series.

My Love Lies Bleeding by Alyxandra Harvey


The Drakes are rather different to your usual neighbours. They are vampires and some of the members of the family date back to the twelfth century. One of the children, Solange, is the only born female vampire known and, as such, she poses a direct threat to the vampire queen.
Her best friend Lucy is human, and when Solange is kidnapped Lucy and Solange’s brother, Nicholas, set out to save her. Lucy soon discovers that she would like to be more than just friends with Nicholas. But how does one go about dating a vampire?

Meanwhile, Solange finds an unlikely ally in Kieran, a vampire slayer on the hunt for his father’s killer . . .

WARNING: Walk away now if you have issues with clever humourous writing and a bit of reworking of the vampire genre. Nothing about this novel is what you expect, even if you've had your fill of Twilight and Lestat.

Do stay however if you're interested in this brand new novel from Bloomsbury written by the beautifully named Alyxandra Harvey who writes with (sickening) ease.

I rolled my eyes - I won't lie - when I read the back cover and thought: oh my goodness, another vampire novel! Do I need this in my life?

And well, you know, after the opening couple of pages, I realised that yes, I did need another vampire novel in my life because this one is laugh out loud amusing in certain sections and so well written - did I mention that already? - I had to finish it. So I did. One sitting.

The main character for me anyway, is Lucy. She's the BFF. She's the one that keeps Solange - the almost vamp - grounded. She's amusing, she's fierce, she's clever and boy, can she hold her own against an entire family of slightly dramatic vamps.

Solange on the other hand is the one who is not entire comfortable with becoming a vampire. She's equally unhappy about being "courted" by various male vamps, to the extent where some of them try to kidnap her on a regular basis. By claiming Solange they not only "own" the only female vampire to have been born in several generations, because of some prophecy she may in fact become queen of the vamps. Tres dramatic!

My Love Lies Bleeding could have gone so bitterly wrong, being overly dramatic and emo, but instead it's a testament to friendship, family and a can-do attitude. It took me by surprise and I actually emailed the Bloomsbury PR person to say thanks for sending it because it was unlike anything I expected and I can irrevocably say that I genuinely enjoyed reading it. Without being in a vamp camp at all.

Although it works with the standard tropes: vampire family with a hot selection of vampire boys, the beautiful female vamp about to become one for all eternity, the vampire's Lucy inclusion in the novel that spins the entire trope on it's backside, stopping it from becoming a pastiche and making it something different.

It should get quite a bit of acclaim. I hope it does. It's a fun read. Lucy kicks butt, she has insane ideas and she pulls them off. Solange is probably too sweet and maybe a bit too trusting when it comes to who her family is, but she's been protected by her group of older male siblings who treat her like some precious ornament, yet they forget that she's as feisty as they are. Something else I liked was the proactiveness of Solange's parents - her mother is tough and a fighter, giving as good as she gets when the house gets attacked by a bunch of hunters out to kill them. The dad is the calming influence, the peacemaker, which is nice role reversal and one I heartily approve of. The vampire politics are dealt with very quickly so you know pretty soon how everything fits together.

When Solange is kidnapped Lucy obviously rushes to the rescue with Sol's brother Nicholas in tow. I thoroughly enjoyed the way these two interacted. Their attraction is very apparent yet it grows slowly in an amusing and juvenile way that had me laughing and cringing at the same time. I think I was smiling more than anything else whilst I read MLLB.

The chapters are written alternatively from Lucy then Solange's point of view. The author manages to keep the voices separate and engaging. You can tell she had a blast writing MLLB - the writing flows well and it (unfortunately for me) made it too quick a read. On the one hand I would have loved for it to have been a bit longer but on the other hand, I appreciate the pace it was written to and there was no protracted dull bits, which is a big plus point. The two main characters - Lucy and Solange - are both interesting and fun to spend time with. Nicholas sounds like a real honey and never mind the rest of the vampire siblings! More books are in the pipeline, as far as I know and I for one can't wait to read 'em!

My Love Lies Bleeding is published by Bloomsbury here in the UK in January 2010. Find Alyxandra Harvey's website here.


I have been sent TWO copies of My Love Lies Bleeding to give away. In order to be in for a chance to win, leave comments below on your favourite vampire story of all time. This competition is open to UK entrants only. I'll announce winners (and post them) on 4th January.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

ISpy: The Constantinople Caper by Graham Marks


Trey is thrilled to be accompanying his father, influential Chicago businessman T Drummond MacIntyre II, on a trip to Constantinople. Armed with a suitcase packed full of his favorite tales of super-sleuths and daring detectives, Trey can't wait for his holiday to begin. So imagine his excitement when, as father and son board the Orient Express, Trey thinks they are being followed by a mysterious stranger. Surely Trey's been reading one too many spy capers? However, as they make the journey across Europe, Trey's father appears distant and evasive. Is he simply busy with work, or is something more untoward happening? When T Drummond MacIntyre II goes missing, Trey is plunged into the secretive and dangerous world of 1920s espionage, trawling the chaotic streets of Constantinople in search of his father's whereabouts. But while Trey has always dreamed about being a spy, nothing can prepare him for the breathtaking escapades that await him in this exotic and enticing city.

I've now re-read ISpy twice - I am that geeky. I liked it for it's incredible pace, the setting, and the mystery surrounding Trey and his dad. It made me think of lazy Sunday afternoons lying in front of the TV watching classic movies with my mom and dad. It made me want to jump on a boat with my luggage and go travel the world.

It's a cracking story - whilst reading it, if you close your eyes a little, it's not difficult to imagine that you are on the Orient Express. It's easy enough to imagine seeing someone suspicious following you around, especially if you realise your dad's not quite who or what he seems. Especially when you get to Constantinople and it's quite obvious something is definitely going on...but what?

Mr. Marks' writing is effortless to read whilst Trey is perfectly cast as the slightly sulky teen who realises that going "on holiday" with his dad means him seeing various cities and places, maybe learning too much about them, whilst his dad attends various business meetings. It's not ideal. So no wonder his imagination starts running off with him.

I was initially hesitant about a) setting / locale and b) era of setting. I was pretty sure adults would "get" the 1920's milieu properly, the nervousness of the era etc. but I wasn't sure if children would and was therefore pleasantly surprised that the author used the lightest of touches when describing the ongoing political machinations and why everyone was spying on their neighbour.

Very cleverly written it takes Trey from one extreme, physically and mentally, and throws so many curveballs at the poor kid, you can't help but feel sorry for him. But Trey is pretty together and with a bit of help and relying on his own resourcefulness he plunges into the quagmire and unravels the intricately bound story.

ISpy is very much a standalone novel. I suspect that if there are others in the pipeline, they will be too. It's definitely a boy's own adventure novel, harkening back to a different era. I'd recommend it to readers aged 10+, and also to readers who find history and new places interesting to swot up on. You can't help but wanting to dip into more information about some of the real life characters Trey meets along the way. Written with a keen eye for detail, by an author who clearly remembers what it feels like being a boy with an overactive imagination and a penchant for finding trouble, ISpy by Graham Marks is a deliciously exotic read and I'm hoping to read MORE Trey MacIntyre books in the future.

ISpy is out now in all good bookshops. Find Graham Mark's website here and his publishers - Usborne - here.

Monday, December 28, 2009

MFB GoOdIe BaG wInNeRs

Firstly, peeps, so many apologies for being so very late with the announcement this time around. The Mac got itself tidied away upstairs for the festive period here at Casa MFB and we didn't bring it down until teh now! I've been suffering from withdrawal symptoms, I kid you not.

But, you genuinely don't care about my computer woes, you want to know who the winner is of the awesome Goodie Bag Super Deluxe, well, here you go:

Dillion - you've won - congratulations!

We're about to send you an email to let you know! Our friend Phil chose Dillion on Xmas day before they came through to our house for Xmas lunch.

Thanks to everyone who've entered - we are very pleased at the success and look forward to running even more comps in 2010.

As for the pictures of some of the items, here you go - a tiny sneak peek:

The Crowfield Curse by Pat Walsh


Will knows a secret.

Somewhere in the forest, behind the abbey where he lives, is a grave.

And buried deep in the snow is an angel

But how can an angel die? What has it to do with the monks of Crowfield Abbey, who have taken care of Will since he was orphaned? And why does Will get the feeling that when he looks out, something hidden in the dusk is staring back at him?

On a bitter winter’s day in the year 1347, 14-year-old Will Paynel is sent to the forest to gather wood. He stumbles across and rescues a creature caught a trap – a hob, who comes to share with him a terrible secret. Somewhere in the forest near Crowfield Abbey, an angel lies buried. With the arrival of two strangers to the abbey, the mystery deepens. Will and the hob are drawn into a dangerous world of Old Magic, a bitter feud and ancient secrets. Will needs to unravel the truth and put right an age-old wrong if he is to survive, and time is running out…

Some books you pick up to read and then you look up and discover an entire afternoon / train journey / evening has disappeared. The Crowfield Curse is a book like that. It’s written so skilfully, by a storyteller who has managed to convey such a sense of place, that you feel transported to a time long gone.

I think Pat Walsh is perhaps going to struggle a bit in the future – but read on, before you gasp in shock, thinking I’m being mean – because like Meg Rosof, she’s difficult to quantify. I’ll try and put my thoughts forward and you can decide if I’m being a bit silly.

The Crowfield Curse defies being pigeonholed. It’s a historical novel, set in the 1300’s in England. The author brings to that age a setting very reminiscent of Umberto Eco’s The name of the Rose. The monks’ and Will’s world is incredibly small. It is a mean world, where heating and food isn’t readily available, the hardships they face are very real and Will’s life is difficult. He fondly remembers his family who died in a fire and dreams about almost-forgotten days when food was fresh and tasted lovely and about being warm.

But The Crowfield Curse is also a fantasy. Fae creatures like the hob exists, as do the Seelie and Unseelie Court and of course, the rumour about the dead angel buried in the woods.

Now, other authors have tried mixing historical and fantasy together and it’s not worked very well. In the case of The Crowfield Curse it does work very well.

There is never a sense of the story being untrue. Will’s realisation that his world is actually much larger than he first thought it to be, is slow in coming and it’s a poignant read. He is hesitant to believe it. He questions it and wrestles with it internally. He’s aware that should he speak to any of the monks about any of his discoveries they would think he’d gone insane / become possessed and he’d no doubt be exiled from their community.

But what struck me the most about Pat Walsh’s writing is how beautifully The Crowfield Curse is written. Wonderfully evocative and literary, it stands in danger to be that cut above standard books for this age group. And I’ll sob my eyes out if readers aged 9+ overlook it, thinking it may not be any fun, as the mature language may initially seem a bit daunting. It has so much to offer.

It’s intelligent and funny and the main character Will comes across as a genuine and likeable main character, someone you can identified with. He’s a normal boy who gets thrust into extraordinary circumstances yet he has to pretend that everything is the same it’s always been. This makes for great conflict and character development and you keep your breath in when the hob does silly things like go and sit in church with Will because dammit, if he gets caught, who knows what will happen!

The mystery about the two unexpected visitors to the abbey heightens the tension, especially when Will realises that neither man is who he appears to be. Small signs of rebellion in Will’s character begins to show, as he starts considering a life outside of the Abbey. The arrival of these strangers seem to further crack and break that delicate balance that kept Will caught in the Abbey’s net. But things never work out as planned. As the story moves towards it conclusions, some questions are answered, but new ones are levelled and it’s then that you realise that Will’s life is due for a dramatic change.

Intricately woven with enough menace throughout you keep paging, wanting to find out the rest of the story makes The Crowfield Curse a cracking read – especially for this, darker, stranger time of year!

Ms. Walsh’s writing is effortless. It’s books like this that give aspiring and untried writers false courage because you read it and go “wow, she makes it look so incredibly easy, I’m sure I can pound out one of those in a few weeks”. The hard work and polish shines through, making The Crowfield Curse a book that will no doubt break out from its established age banding. And I hope it does. It also yearns to be read out loud, which I did to Mark, making him listen to some snippets of the story as it unfolds! Ah, the things we do without authors and publishers knowing when we go geeky about books.

The Crowfield Curse by Pat Walsh is published by Chicken House on 4th January 2010. Find Pat’s website here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Warning: MFB gOoDiE bAg

One lucky person (in the UK) WILL win a goodie bag from MFB on Christmas Day. It will be rammed with random things - books, postcards, some stuff from the EA event I attended earlier this year, a couple of audiobooks and whatever we can find that can fit in a shoebox shaped box.

The books will cover various genres and ages. The goodies will be random things we've picked up during the year at events attended (I don't mean to make it sound like we were STEALING things but there was some ninja subterfuge in some instances...) and it's an extra present in the New Year for a lucky (UK) reader.

This time around there will be one condition of entry:

Comment below on books you are looking forward to in 2010 - or, if you don't have a book in mind, definitely an author's work you're looking forward to reading, even if they've been published in 2009 and you're planning to read it in 2010. Also mention if you are on Twitter so that we know to follow you back! I'm @LizUK and Mark is @Gergaroth.

We will ask one of our friends coming over for Xmas lunch to choose the winner. You'll be notified via email (please leave coded email address in comment section / email us here if you don't want it to be "public") and I'll post a few pics of what will be in your goodie bag/box but it won't be everything as there should be some mystery at least!

So, get going peeps! Comment away - eight days left! Comments will close at around 12pm on the 25th December.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Cover Loving

How beautiful is this? I love it - I can't wait to read it.

Yes, this is me, Liz, writing this blog post. About a military sci-fi novel. Don't faint or anything. But I love James Lovegrove's writing and this is the second book in this sequence of novel's he's writing.

This is the review I did over at SFREVU.COM for Age of Ra. I kept it quite low-key and without all the exclamation marks to drive my point across of HOW! BLOODY! COOL! IT! IS!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Shadow King - Gav Thorpe

When his family is betrayed and slain, Alith Anar, ill-fated prince of the Nagarythe, is forced to walk a dark path. He finds refuge in vengeance, seeking out the murderers of his kin and declaring war against an entire nation. The island of Ulthuan is locked in a bitter struggle with their evil counterparts, the druchii. While noble high elf princes raise armies to defend their homeland from invasion, Alith Anar strikes from the shadows... for he is the Shadow King.

Favoured by Kurnous, he hunts his enemies from the darkness in a bloody quest for revenge without end.

Shadow King is the second instalment of the Black Library's Sundering saga and continues the story begun in Malekith. It's not a sequel in the usual sense of the word in that while it overlaps the story begun in Malekith, it stands alone in its own right, much like the books of the Horus Heresy series.

I enjoyed Malekith enormously, so got stuck straight into Shadow King- in truth, the first time I read the above blurb is when I sat down to do the review! 'King runs concurrently with the story of Malekith up to approximately halfway through before heading into uncharted waters; it's mechanism that works perfectly well whether you've read the first book or not.

Gav has put in a lot of work to establish Alith as a sympathetic and likeable character, which is essential- when it all starts hitting the fan and his metamorphosis into the Shadow King begins, it's this foundation of his character that holds it all together and gives his despair and burning thirst for vengeance the impact it should have. And it's a bumpy ride- going to war with the Dark Elves on their home territory isn't an option that leaves much room for woolliness and daydreaming about unicorns. No quarter is given or offered; it's a dirty, bloody business, as it should be.

Alith isn't a superhero of any sort; he's an orphaned prince, the last of his line, scarred by the reality of war and crippled by his hatred for the druchii. With his lands swallowed by the Dark Elf expansion and only the remnants of his army standing beside him, there isn't much he can do against the might of the armies and cultists of Morathi. His decision to lead his faithful company in a guerilla war against the druchii on their home turf, sowing discord and fear as they strike from the shadows and vanish, is a pivotal moment, and well executed.

That Gav is a veteran of many tabletop battles and has really given some thought to the strategies that both sides would employ is apparent when it comes to the larger battles and how Alith deploys his shadow warriors. It's very satisfying, almost as much as it is to see that the evil characters have been given free rein to, well, be evil.

Sure, there were a couple of minor bugs for me, but certainly nothing that made it any less enjoyable to read. The cover is one example- a gorgeously rendered picture, but the Alith's bow should be bent more, otherwise that bowstring's going to have some slack in it when it's released. And his left sleeve wouldn't be so voluminous- it's an invitation to snag the bowstring. And don't even get me started on the back-slung quiver. Minor bugs.

But it's the story that's important, and there's certainly no issue with that.

It's engaging, and very more-ish. Shadow King is a cracking, solid read and a shouldn't be confined to the reading lists of Warhammer fans (for whom it should be mandatory!) - it's a perfectly good heroic fantasy in it's own right and demands a wider audience.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

**Competition Winners** Fallen by Lauren Kate

We've had a bumper amount of entries for this awesome competition for copies of Fallen by Lauren Kate - so a huge thanks to Random House Kids for letting me run this. *preens*

I feel like I'm at the Oscars announcing winners...only it's less glamorous as I'm sitting at the office wearing work clothes (not a sparkle in sight) sipping tea, and not champagne...

Here we go, thanks to

23: Sue H from South London
11: Jamie H from Edinburgh
2: Rachel G
16: Andrew T from Lancs
8: Malin S from Manchester
15: Kayleigh M from Rainham
4: Andrea C from Northants
9: Asma S from London
12: Hollie M
3: Liz S from Liverpool

All of you have been contacted - if you've not let me have your address, please do so asap so i can get everyone's details sent onto RHCB so that your winnings can be mailed to you.

Please visit back next week when we start our supa dooper Tweve Days of Christmas give away.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Goldstrike by Matt Whyman


Carl may have escaped from Camp Twilight, but now he's being pursued by a bounty hunter in the pay of the US government, and an al-Quaeda assassin. Wanted dead by one and alive by the other, he must use all his skills as a manipulator of both systems and people to survive. Can he play one enemy against the other in his bid to live another day? Hiding out in the least likely place possible - a warehouse hiding untold treasures - Carl has to harness the powers of Cleo, the super-computer who controls it. For Cleo is primed to unleash aggressive counter-measures at the least sign of intrusion - but can Carl get her on side?

Firstly, I’ve not read Matt Whyman’s previous book (In the Cage) before tackling Goldstrike and was initially worried that I’d not be able to catch up. I should not have even let a glimmer of worry enter my mind – Goldstrike works perfectly as a standalone with very brief flash-backs to cover the backstory.

Matt’s writing is more-ish. Goldstrike is a very quick read and a satisfying one. There are guns, bad guys, good guys, computers, hacking, a pretty girl obsessed with bullion, lasers, mysterious organisations...Matt’s gone and created a whole list of cool things, stuffed them into Goldstrike and ticked all the boxes. It quite easily may not have worked at all but the author’s skill comes to forefront here as instead of lambasting us with technobabble about the hacking, which is after all the crux of the story, he shows a few techniques Carl uses and the rest is implied and as a reader I totally got it. And I was thankful that he decided not to throw me dead with too much tech talk.

I liked Carl. I liked the fact that he seemed regular and normal. He had an amazing skill when it comes to messing around with computers and technical equipment but instead of being a braggart and a bit annoying, he was a normal guy, doing his best to fly under the radar and keep himself from being noticed. All he wants to do is stay alive long enough to create an even deeper cover for him and Beth.

And in Cleo, a truly advanced supercomputer, he sees his opportunity and grasps it with both hands. Sections of the novel had me wincing. I was convinced Carl was going to be turned to toast by doing something stupid and alerting Cleo to his shenanigans. But naturally, Carl’s the hero and nothing bad can happen to him. Right?

Wrong. A rogue spy gone even more rogue and heartless is out to get him. A massive bounty’s gone out on Carl and Beth’s heads and it’s with very meticulous and terrifying care that the bounty hunter works his contacts to track them down. The guy is terrifying and it’s not because he’s loud and obviously violent (he is a few times) but because he is so methodical and super-careful.

The climax is this insane actioner that deserves to be filmed. Goldstrike is part Bourne/part Bond/Part Die Hard 4.0 and it works on various levels. And the fact that it’s aimed at kids makes it probably cooler still.

Find Matt Whyman’s site here with more info about the rest of his novels. Goldstrike is out now from Simon & Schuster.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth - Chris Priestley

Robert Harper is going back to school, and it is the first railway journal he has ever made alone. And it is not a very usual sort of railway journey. The train stops at the mouth of a tunnel and in order to help pass away the time a strange woman dressed in white tells Robert stories. But these are not the kind of stories normally told to a child. Soon Robert is both entranced and terrified by the strange woman and her macabre stories.

Prepare to be chilled to the bone as Robert discovers just how frightening it can be to be alone on a train with only strangers to keep you company.

Some books are made for summer, for reading on the beach, or at leisure on a sofa in a comfy coffee shop somewhere. Then there's Tales of Terror, perfectly suited for those nights when you're trapped in a creaking old inn on a desolate, storm wracked moor.

As with Uncle Montague and the Black Ship, Chris has given us a trove of deliciously dark and gothic flavoured treats, each one sporting a macabre sting in the tail and written with an old fashioned slant that's perfectly suited to his style of storytelling. The stories are capped with David Roberts' delightfully spiky and Tim Burtonesque black and white illustrations which accentuate the unique quirky voice that the stories have.
A new governess

'Gerald' was a particular favourite of mine from this collection, a truly spooky and unsettling little story that really should be read by candlelight.

I thought I'd guessed the the identity of the strange woman who entertains young Robert with the tales and the way the overall theme of the story would pan out, but here too there was a dark 'n sneaky twist.

All in all, it's a wicked read and one that I can't recommend enough for when the nights draw close and winter's fingers scratch at your windows.

Friday, December 04, 2009

We wos interviewed!

This is incredibly flattering.

Mark and I got interviewed by the lovely Harry Markov and it's gone up over at his blog: Temple Library Reviews .

Reading over it now I'm thinking: I'm a gobby cow! talk talk talk whilst Mark channelled his mysterious side as the dark brooding presence in the corner and yeah, that pretty much reflects how things are for realz.

**Exclusive** Chapter 5 of Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard

Ceyaxochitl and Yaotl were waiting for me at the entrance to the calmecac school, by a fresco of quetzals in flight. The birds’ long tails spread against the painted background like waterfalls of emerald. Ceyaxochitl’s face was flushed, and she was muttering imprecations under her breath.

“Arrogant bastard. Who does he think he is?”

“Something the matter?” I asked, stifling a yawn.

Yaotl turned to me. “The Jaguar Knight just walked out of here,” he said.

“The Jaguar Knight?” My mind, which had been focused on Eleuia’s child, and on whether it might have been Neutemoc’s, snapped back to the present. “Mahuizoh? The one who was visiting his sister?”

The Duality curse me. I’d forgotten to ask Neutemoc if he knew the man. He had to: there weren’t that many Jaguar Knights in the city of Tenochtitlan.

“Yes,” Ceyaxochitl snapped. “He said we had no evidence against him, that we had a perfectly good culprit in any case, and that he saw no reason to tarry here.”

“So you didn’t question him.”

“Does it look as though I did?” Ceyaxochitl snapped. She rapped her cane on the ground. “I should have arrested him for disrespect. I’m getting too soft for this.”

I didn’t believe a word of that last sentence. She was still as harsh as she’d ever been: as harsh as she needed to be, to protect the Mexica Empire from wayward gods, stray underworld monsters, sorcerers and magicians…

“Why didn’t you?” Yaotl asked, softly. He had a hand on his obsidian-studded macuahitl sword.

“You had ample reasons.”

Ceyaxochitl shook her head. “He’s not guilty of anything, Yaotl. Warriors and arrogance go hand-in-hand, remember?”

I disliked arrogance as much as Ceyaxochitl, and Zollin’s imperiousness was all too fresh in my mind. But Ceyaxochitl was right: warriors, especially Eagle and Jaguar Knights, were entitled to be arrogant, to dismiss us as of little consequence. It wasn’t seemly behaviour, but they had dispensation. They’d fought on the Empire’s battlefields, taken prisoners to sacrifice to the gods, so that the world should go on, fed by the magic of living blood; survived gruelling battles and retreats. Compared to this, we priests had an easy life.

“Do you know where he lives?” I asked Ceyaxochitl.

“No,” she said. “But he’s a Jaguar Knight. You can go ask at their House, tomorrow.”

“Why not tonight?” I asked. “Neutemoc–”

Ceyaxochitl’s lips pursed. “One night of imprisonment isn’t going to kill your brother.”

“But I could–”

“You could not.” Her voice was as cutting as obsidian. “One does not walk into the Jaguar House.”

“I am High Priest for the Dead,” I said, in the same tone she had used on me.

Ceyaxochitl’s gaze told me all I needed to know: the Jaguar and Eagle Knights were the elite of the Empire, the warriors who kept us strong, and they had their own laws. “Acatl. If you go into the Jaguar House, and wake up sleeping Knights without their commander’s permission, you’ll be under arrest. And much good it will do your brother then.”

“You’re asking me to let go?”

“I’m asking you to wait until tomorrow. Daylight changes many things.”

Yaotl’s lips pursed. “And if you dress impressively enough, getting in shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Ha ha,” I said. Even if I put on my full regalia, with the skull-mask and the cloak embroidered with owls, I’d still have difficulties entering the Jaguar Knights’ House. “Do you think it’s worth pursuing?” I asked Ceyaxochitl.

It was Yaotl who answered. “That Jaguar Knight was shaken,” he said. “Very badly shaken, and trying hard not to show it.”

Hardly a normal reaction. “You think he had something to do with it?”

“I’m having trouble seeing how he could not have had something to do with it,” Yaotl said.
More suspects. On the one hand, this lessened the chances Neutemoc was guilty of more than adultery. On the other, what had looked like an easy case seemed to put forth additional complications with every hour.

“I’ll go and see him tomorrow,” I said.

Ceyaxochitl’s eyes blinked, slowly; her face stretched slightly. I put my hand over my mouth to contain my own yawn.

“Anything else?” she asked.

I thought back to my interview with Zollin, and of the magic that had hung thick in her room.

“You said you’d searched every room of the calmecac for the nahual. Did that include Zollin’s rooms?”

Yaotl spoke up. “No supernatural jaguar hiding there, trust me. Although I’ve never seen someone less worried about Eleuia.”

“I had the same impression,” I said. “She seemed to polarise people.”

Ceyaxochitl shrugged. “The beautiful often do, even if they’re no longer young.” She leaned on her cane, exhaling in what seemed almost nostalgia. Then she shook her head, coming back to more pressing matters. “The search parties are out. Yaotl will stay here and supervise them. You, on the other hand, should go to sleep.”

I said, stung, “I don’t need–”

“Sleep? Don’t be a fool, Acatl. Dawn is in less than two hours. You won’t be of any use to anyone, least of all your brother, if you can hardly stand.”

My brother. Was I going to be of any use to him?

I hadn’t dwelled on Neutemoc for years. Or perhaps it had started even earlier: when the calpulli clan’s search party brought Father’s drowned body to Neutemoc’s house, and when we’d stared at each other across the divide, and known we’d become strangers to each other.
I didn’t know. I didn’t know what I ought to feel.

“There will be time, tomorrow,” Yaotl said, almost gently. I must have looked really tired, if he was being solicitous to me.

“Was there anything else, Acatl?” Ceyaxochitl asked.

It was a dismissal: my last chance to get her help, instead of Yaotl’s distant, ironic pronouncements. I said, finally, “I need the location… of a certain house in Tenochtitlan.”
“A House of Joy?” Yaotl asked, his face falsely serious. “Feeling lonely in your bed?”

I was too tired to rise to the jibe. “Priestess Eleuia allegedly had a child, some years ago. I’m not sure it’s significant, but I’d like to know if it’s true.”

Ceyaxochitl’s eyes held me, shrewd, perceptive. I lowered my gaze. I didn’t wish her to read my thoughts. But she had to know; she had to have guessed what I feared. “Yes?”

“I’ve heard whispers in the Sacred Precinct,” I said slowly. “They say… they say that Xochiquetzal, the Quetzal Flower could not restrain Her lust, and charmed all the gods onto Her sleeping mat, one after the other. There is talk that the Duality expelled Her from Heaven for this sin, and that She now dwells in the mortal world, in a house which can be visited, if one knows its location.”

Ceyaxochitl didn’t blink, or give any sign of surprise. “Perhaps,” she said. “You’d go to Her to know about the child?”

“Yes,” I said.

I couldn’t read her expression. But at length she said, “Priestess Eleuia belonged to Her. And she is Goddess of Lust and Childbirth, after all. Perhaps She’ll know something useful. Go to bed, Acatl. I’ll send the address to you in the morning.”

So I couldn’t go to the goddess’s house now. They were both treating me like a newborn infant, which was worrying. Neither of them had shown any inclination to overprotect me before.

“Very well,” I said. “You win. I’ll go find some sleep before dawn.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll take care of things,” Yaotl said. His eyes glinted in the darkness. For a fleeting moment I thought there was more than amusement in his gaze – something deeper and more serious – but then I dismissed the thought. Yaotl was not my enemy.

I was too tired to think properly. I bade them goodbye and walked back to my temple, praying that they’d find Eleuia alive – that they’d find something, anything, that would exonerate Neutemoc.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

**Exclusive** Chapter 4 of Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard

When I arrived, the courtyard was deserted again, and the entrance-curtain to Eleuia’s room hung forlornly in the breeze. But from the other set of rooms – Zollin’s – came light, and the slow, steady beat of a drum. Music, at this hour?

I pulled aside the curtain, and took a look inside.

In a wide room much like Eleuia’s, two young adolescents went through the motions of a dance. One was tall, her hair cascading down her back, and the seashell anklets she wore chimed with each of her slow gestures. The other wove her way between the tall one’s movements, like water flowing through stone. It was not all effortless: beads of sweat ran down the first dancer’s face, and the other one kept whispering under her breath, counting the paces.

The drum-beater was older than either of her dancers: her seamed face had seen many a year, and she kept up her rhythm, even though her eyes were focused on the girls. Smoke hung in the room: copal incense, melding with the odour of sweat in an intoxicating mixture.

I released the curtain. The chime of the bells crashed into the music, a jarring sound that made both dancers come to a halt. The drum-beater laid her instrument on the ground, and looked at me, appraising me in a manner eerily reminiscent of Ceyaxochitl. It was very uncomfortable.

“Priestess Zollin?” I asked her. “I am Acatl.”

The drummer nodded. She turned, briefly, to the girls, “That was good. But not enough. A dance should be done without thinking, in much the same way that you breathe.” She waved a dismissive hand. “We’ll practise again tomorrow.”

The girls remained standing where they were, staring at me in fascination.

The older woman’s full attention was on me. “The High Priest for the Dead, I suppose. Come to question me. I’ve had the Guardian already, you know, and you’ve already arrested a culprit. I don’t see what good it will do.”

She was sharp. Used to getting her own way, to the point of discarding Neutemoc as of no importance to her. Already, I longed to break some of that pride. She was also singularly unworried, if she could dispense music lessons in the middle of the night, with one of her priestesses missing, or killed.

“One of your priestesses has vanished,” I said. “Doesn’t that–”

She shrugged. “Why should it interfere with the running of this house? I grieve for Eleuia” – that was the worst lie I’d ever heard, for she made no effort to inflect any of those words, or to put sadness on her face – “but she was only one woman. The education we dispense shouldn’t halt because of that.”

“I see,” I said. “So you think she’s dead.” I closed my eyes, briefly, and felt the magic hanging around the room like a shroud, clinging to the frescoes of flowers and musical instruments: not nahual, not quite, but something dark, something angry. Zollin was clearly powerful.

“There was so much blood,” the tallest dancer said suddenly. Her face was creased in an expression that didn’t belong: worry or fear, or perhaps the first stirrings of anger.

“Cozamalotl,” Zollin snapped. The girl fell silent, but she still watched her teacher. Her younger companion hadn’t moved. A faint blush was creeping up her cheeks.

“Eleuia could still be alive,” I said.

“Then go look for her,” Zollin said. She was truly angry, and I had no idea why. “Do your work, and I’ll do mine.”

The Duality curse me if I was going to let her dominate me. “My work brings me here,” I said, softly. “My work leads me to ask you why you’re not more preoccupied by the disappearance of a priestess in your own calmecac.”

Zollin watched me. “She never belonged to this calmecac. It was only a step on her path to better things.”

“Becoming Consort?” I asked.

“Whatever she could seize,” Zollin said.

Cozamalotl spoke up again, moving closer to Zollin as if she could shield her. “Everyone knows Eleuia grasped at power the way warriors grasp at fame.”

The younger dancer did not answer. She was shaking her head in agreement or in disagreement, though only slightly. It seemed that Cozamalotl wasn’t only Zollin’s student, but her partisan. If Eleuia was indeed dead, or incapacitated, Cozamalotl would have her reward, just as Zollin would.

The Southern Hummingbird blind my brother. How in the Fifth World had he managed to embroil himself in such a bitter power struggle?

I probed further. “So you think someone didn’t like what Eleuia was doing?”

Zollin snorted. “No one did. It’s not seemly for a woman.”

Hypocrite. She condemned Eleuia for her ambition, but she still wanted that office of Consort for herself. I liked Zollin less and less as the conversation progressed, though I couldn’t afford to be blinded by resentment if I wanted to solve this.

“Women have few paths open in life,” I said, finally, thinking of my own sister Mihmatini, who would be coming of age in a few months, and would either join the clergy or look for a husband of her own.

“But we know our place,” Zollin said. “Eleuia’s behaviour was hardly appropriate. Flaunting herself before men with her hair unbound and her face painted yellow – red cochineal on her teeth, as if she were still a courtesan on the battlefield–”

“When did she come here?” I asked, knowing I had to regain control of the conversation if I wanted to find anything to help Neutemoc.

Zollin looked bewildered for the first time. “Nine, ten years ago? I’m not sure.”

“And how long have you been here?”

“A long time,” Zollin said.

“Long enough to feel you should have been Consort, instead of Eleuia?” I asked.

She looked at me with new eyes. Yes. I might look harmless, but I could still wound.

When she answered, some of the acidity was gone from her voice. “Some of us,” she said, “take what we have. And we do the tasks we were charged with, and do them well for years. Eleuia was young and inexperienced. But she was alluring. And men like that in a woman.”

Of course they did – the warriors, and maybe even some of the priests, though they shouldn’t have. And the men, as she had no need to remind me, held the power: the clergy of Xochiquetzal was subordinate to that of her husband, Xochipilli.

“She had power,” Zollin went on. “A great mastery of magic, and a reputation won on the battlefield. But all that doesn’t make a good Consort of Xochipilli.”

“Then what does?” I asked.

“Dedication,” Zollin said shortly. “Eleuia’s heart wasn’t in the priesthood. You could see it was only her pathway to something larger.”

“I see,” I said. She was only repeating herself. But her final assessment of Eleuia sounded more sincere than everything she’d said before. A woman bent on power – and wouldn’t Neutemoc, with his status as a Jaguar Knight, have been a good embodiment of that power? My hands clenched. I wouldn’t think about Neutemoc, not now. I couldn’t afford to. “What were you doing tonight?”

“None of your concern.”

Had she and Neutemoc decided to act together to vex me? “I’ve had my share of foolish excuses for tonight,” I said. “Tell me what you were doing.”

It was the dancer Cozamalotl who answered. “She was with us,” she said. “Teaching us the proper hymns for the festivals.”

Given the slight twitch of surprise on Zollin’s face, that was clearly a lie.

“I see,” I said, again. “Would you swear to that before the magistrates?”

She gazed at me, defiant, but it was Zollin who spoke. “Cozamalotl,” she said. “The penalty for perjury is the loss of a hand. Don’t waste your future.”

Cozamalotl did not look abashed, not in the slightest. Her young companion, though, was bright red by now, and looked as if she wanted to speak but couldn’t get the words past her lips. I would have to talk to her later.

“I–” Cozamalotl started.

Zollin cut her. “I was alone. In my rooms. And I can swear that I had nothing to do with that.”

“But you hated Eleuia,” I said.

“I won’t deny that.”

“Tell me,” I said. “What day were you born?”

She looked surprised. “That’s no concern of yours.”

“Humour me.”

“Why should I?”

“It’s only a date,” I said. “What are you afraid of?”

“I’m not a fool,” Zollin said. “There’s only one reason you’d be asking for it. I didn’t summon the nahual, Acatl-tzin.”

“But you could have.”

She watched me, unblinking. At length: “You’ll go to the registers anyway. Yes. I was born on the day Twelve Jaguar in the year Ten House.”

She’d been quick to react. Too quick, perhaps, as if she’d had prior knowledge? She’d been in the room: it was conceivable she’d have recognised the scent of nahual magic, though highly unlikely. It wasn’t a widespread craft among priestesses.

I said nothing. “Will that be all?” she asked, drawing herself to her full height. “I have offerings to make.”

“That will be all,” I said. “For now.” I caught the eye of the younger dancer, who was still standing unmoving, her face creased in worry. She nodded, briefly, her chin raising to point to the courtyard outside.

I exited the room, and waited for the girl there. She did not come immediately: an angry conversation seemed to be going on inside, between Zollin and her two students. But try as I might, I couldn’t make out the individual words, not without re-entering the room.

Two things worried me. The first was Zollin’s singular unconcern for the summoning of a nahual, and the spilling of blood in her own calmecac school; the second, the sheer incongruity of teaching girls how to dance at this hour of the night.

But then, if she was indeed complicit in Eleuia’s disappearance, the first wasn’t surprising. As to the second: I’d known men and women who would bury themselves in activities, no matter how ludicrous, in order to escape guilty consciences.

The younger dancer joined me outside, after a while. She was even younger than I thought: not much more than a child, really, her body barely settling into the shapes and contours of adulthood. “Acatl-tzin? I thought–”

“Go on,” I said, gently.

“My name is Papan,” she said. “I…” She looked at me, struggling for words. “Is Zollin-tzin a suspect in your investigation?”

“I don’t know,” I said, though she most surely was.

“There was a man found in Eleuia’s rooms,” Papan said. “With blood on his hands.”

I nodded, curtly, trying not to think too much of Neutemoc, of what I’d have to tell his wife, Huei, once I’d gathered enough courage to go to her. “There are unexplained things,” I said, finally. I started walking towards the end of the courtyard, crushing pine needles under my sandaled feet. Their sweet, aromatic smell wafted upwards, a relief after the stifling atmosphere of Zollin’s room.

Papan followed me. “You’re looking in the wrong place.”

“Your loyalty brings you credit,” I said. “But–”

“No. You don’t understand. Zollin-tzin has worked hard for this calmecac. She’s always been fair. She would never kill or summon forbidden magic.”

“Nahual magic isn’t forbidden,” I said. “And I only have your word for Zollin’s acts.”

“But I have only your word that Eleuia was abducted,” Papan said, obviously frustrated. “No one has found her. No one even knows if she didn’t summon the nahual herself.”

I shook my head. “Priestess Eleuia wasn’t born on a Jaguar day. She couldn’t have summoned the nahual.” Curious, I asked, “Why would she do such a thing?”

Papan came to stand by my side, under the red arch leading out of the courtyard. A fresco of conch-shells and butterflies ran along the length of the arch. The insects’ wings, painted with dark-red lac, glinted with the same reflections as Papan’s eyes. “Eleuia was very beautiful,” Papan said. “But always frightened. Cozamalotl and the other students didn’t see it, but she always moved as if the ground would open under her feet.”

“She had enemies?” I asked.

Papan shrugged. “I didn’t know her.”

“But you understood her.”

“No,” Papan said. She blushed. “I just saw. But it wasn’t just now. She’d always been like that. For years and years, ever since I entered the calmecac school.”

“And you think she wanted to disappear? Why, if she’d always been afraid?”

Papan turned her face away from me. “I– I’m not supposed to tell you. But if it helps…” She twisted her hands together, but didn’t speak.

“Go on,” I said. “It could save her life.”

Papan was silent for a while. “I saw her once, at the bath-house. She was coming out of the pool.” Papan blushed again. “I saw the marks on her body.”

“What marks? Scars?”

“No,” Papan said. “Stretch-marks.”

“She’d borne a child?” It wasn’t forbidden for a priestess of the Quetzal Flower, but it was certainly unusual. Many herbs would expel a child from a woman’s body, and there were spells which would summon minor gods from Mictlan to end an infant’s life in the womb. Priestesses would know all of these.

“Yes,” Papan said. “I asked her; and she laughed and she said it was a long time ago, when she was much younger, in the Chalca Wars. I asked her why she’d done that, and she told me she’d wanted a keepsake of her warrior lover.”

My heart went cold. “You’re sure it was in the Chalca Wars?”

Papan nodded.

In the Chalca Wars, Eleuia and Neutemoc had slept together. But surely… Nonsense. She was a sacred courtesan. She’d slept with many, many men, even in the Chalca Wars. There were dozens who could have been the father of that child. But it had been someone she’d loved. You couldn’t say that about just any warrior.

And there lay the root of the problem: for a warrior, sleeping with a courtesan was an inalienable right, a reward for facing the hardships of the battlefield. A long affair between a warrior and a courtesan, though – that wasn’t tolerated. It would lead to exclusion from the Jaguar Brotherhood, no matter how long ago the affair had taken place. If Neutemoc had indeed conceived a child with Eleuia – and if Eleuia had kept it – then it meant they had been more than casual lovers.

It also meant that Neutemoc had an even stronger motive to keep Eleuia silent. A child.
I did not like the thought. I had to consider it, like everything linked to the investigation – but it was an itch at the back of my mind, claws softly teasing apart what I had believed I knew about Neutemoc.

“Why do you think it may be connected?” I asked Papan.

Papan shrugged. “I don’t. But she didn’t name the warrior.”

I had noticed that. “And she didn’t tell you anything about him?”

“No,” Papan said. “But she looked scared, as if she’d told me something I wasn’t meant to know. She made me swear to keep it secret. And I have, haven’t I?”

I knew what she wanted. Gently, I said, “Secrets are no use to her if she’s dead.”

Papan stared at me for a while. I couldn’t tell if I’d convinced her. “Don’t tell Zollin-tzin I told you,” she said, as we walked out of the courtyard. “She thinks Eleuia was only an opportunist.”

She didn’t use any honorific for Eleuia, I noticed, just her name. “You were close?” I asked.

Papan bit her lip. “Until Zollin-tzin started teaching me,” she said, miserably. “It’s hard, being torn in two halves.”

I hadn’t known that. But I could guess, given Zollin’s acidity, that it was indeed hard. “You did the right thing,” I said.

“I’m not sure.” Papan bowed, deeply. “I’ll go back to my room now. But thank you for listening to me, Acatl-tzin.” And she walked off into the darkness, leaving me to my own worries.

A child. Neutemoc’s child? The Storm Lord smite him, couldn’t he have been more careful? A warrior was meant to marry in his calpulli clan, to love his wife, to raise her children. And it seemed that Neutemoc – who’d always been held up as an example before me, the shining representation of all I should have done with my life, whom I’d always admired and hated at the same time – it seemed that Neutemoc had not had great success with his marriage.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Cinnamon Girl: Expecting to Fly by Cathy Hopkins

Brief synopsis:

India Jane's under pressure from all corners

It's decision time for India Jane: what subjects she needs to take, what career paths are open to her – and who she wants as her boyfriend.

On the one hand she feels that she's standing on the threshold of her future, with hopes and dreams to fly with. On the other hand, the harsh realities of life mean that her dreams and the boys in her life never go according to plan!

The fourth book in the Cinnamon Girl series.

I'm not one for overtly girly books. But as I said before, I should know by now, not to judge a book by it's cover or it's initial impression.

I am so vastly pleased I've read this book by Ms. Hopkins. I wish I had this to read when I was the same age as India Jane and still at school. We also had all this pressure on us to decide on what subjects to study, as these would directly influence your career choice. It was insane and scary and I still vividly recall the terror of that time.

Which is why I can probably relate to Ms. Hopkins' writing so much.

Yes, it's quite a girly book but not in the sense that it is candyfloss and a bit silly - the dollops of realisim is there, in the way that it deals competently with getting your first steady boyfriend and where do you go from here? Do you suddenly go blind to all the lovely other boys in the world who notice you and who you definitely notice back? CG shows us how families stick together (even if they are weird and a bit hippie-like) and how you make a go of things, no matter what, and to remain positive. It reflects how various generations can help each other and it deals with relationship upsets, how to stay best friends, how to make decisions about your's a pretty hard-core book, actually, that has some truly valuable lessons adequately camouflaged in this neat little package of unputdownable reading.

Needless to say, I really enjoyed it. It's my first ever Cathy Hopkins book. The lovely Chicklish was laughing at me yesterday as I was gushing about it on twitter and she pointed out how like me to find a series near the end and love it regardless. I suppose this is true and it's my own fault for determinedly walking past these in the past, writing them off as being way too girly for me. When will I learn?

India Jane (also, seriously, the coolest name ever) has this amazing relationship with her cooky parents and her younger brother (who I secretly have a tiny crush on as he sounds so sweet). They are uprooted from their aunt's rather luxurious home into new rented accommodation which sounds pretty dire. But with the help of her friends India Jane comes up with a decent colour scheme and some ideas on how to redo her room. Her parents go at it with gusto and soon the house is transformed into boho chic of vibrant colours and quirky knicknacks and freecycle furniture. Except for her brother's room which remains minimalist.

India Jane has to deal with Joe, who has decided that he does like her enough to officially become her boyfriend. Joe veers from being genuinely sweet and cute to alarmingly boy-like and sulky at times and I felt that Ms. Hopkins may have masqueraded as a boy herself to write him so well. Joe shares a lot of India Jane's likes - art, history, exploring and doing "stuff". But as their relationship is very new both of them make some very silly mistakes and it leads to misunderstandings and "words" are had. But, in the end, both Joe and India Jane remain true to one another. India Jane has her head turned by various boys from her past and it's amusing to see (probably because it felt so real) as she struggled to make sense of her attraction to Joe as well as all these other boys who have unexpectedly turned up in her life.

Then there's school - doing the same amount of subjects as everyone else in her year, India Jane is genuinely struggling. She joined late and is fully expected to pull her weight. She tries her best and yet it seems that it's not enough. Add to this the constant nagging worry of what she wants to do as an actual career. This part really struck home as so many people at that time in their lives have no idea which way to go and go on regretting their choices made for almost as long as they live. India Jane's father turns around and says an incredibly poingnant thing and (paraphrased) it's something like: your work does not define who you are, you aren't a banker/accountant/teacher outside of work, you are you and people sometimes lose track of that, unable to make that differentiation. Pretty grown up stuff, to be honest.

We leave India Jane and her friends at the end of book four in a good place, their futures spread at their feet. I closed the covers feeling that I've genuinely had a good time reading it and that I've got quite a bit to think about myself (at the age of 36).

The novel is out now and I can't praise it enough. Cathy Hopkins writes like a dream and India Jane is a wonderful, funny, strong female character - someone you would like to be mates with and have adventures with. Her friends are highlighed as being from strong backgrounds too and I loved their motto of: mates before boys. Sounds to me like they have their heads on properly, that's for sure! Their honesty with each other was refreshing and I particularly liked India Jane's friendship with her BFF in Ireland who she kept in touch with via MSN and Skype. It gives the reader a sense of the immediacy of their friendship.

Cinnamon Girl: Expecting to Fly is out now, from Piccadilly Press. Find Cathy Hopkins' site here.

Musing about The Splendor Falls by Rosemary Clement-Moore

Just been chatting to one of the publicity peeps over at Random House Children's Books and mentioned I can kick myself for NOT taking photos of this parcel which arrived 2 weeks ago at Casa De Jager.

It was mysterious. It was different and oh so cool.

Large book shaped parcel, in a handwritten envelope. Took the book out. It was wrapped in black paper, bound by a heartsblood red velvet ribbon. I died a little because yannow, it looked mysterious and I wanted to know (immediately!!!) what it hid.

So I opened it up, maybe a bit less carefully than I should have, to reveal this deep purple book entitled "The Splendor Falls" by Rosemary Clement-Moore. The book looked mysterious. The handwritten note on thick wrinkled paper heightened this illusion (don't ask me what the note said as it's at home at present but I will reveal it later when I get a chance), along with the scattered dried rose petals inside the parcel.

It looked stunning. Mysterious. And I've been dying to fall into it, and I may, very soon. But, CA from RHCB just sent me a photo of what the package actually looked like:

About The Splendour Falls

Sylvie Davis is a ballerina who can’t dance. A broken leg ended her career, but Sylvie’s pain runs deeper. What broke her heart was her father’s death, and what’s breaking her spirit is her mother’s remarriage—a union that’s only driven an even deeper wedge into their already tenuous relationship.

Uprooting her from her Manhattan apartment and shipping her to Alabama is her mother’s solution for Sylvie’s unhappiness. Her father’s cousin is restoring a family home in a town rich with her family’s history. And that’s where things start to get shady. As it turns out, her family has a lot more history than Sylvie ever knew. More unnerving, though, are the two guys that she can’t stop thinking about. Shawn Maddox, the resident golden boy, seems to be perfect in every way. But Rhys—a handsome, mysterious foreign guest of her cousin’s—has a hold on her that she doesn’t quite understand.

Then she starts seeing things. Sylvie’s lost nearly everything—is she starting to lose her mind as well?
Doesn't this sound simply scrummy?

**Exclusive** Chapter 3 of Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard

Chapter 3

Yaotl took me to where Neutemoc was kept: a room at the back of the calmecac. He walked by my side with a faint trace of amusement in his dark eyes, but said nothing. Neither did I – I, too, could play the game of withholding information.

Two of Ceyaxochitl’s warriors, with the fused-lovers insignia of the Duality on their cotton-padded armour, stood guard at the door. They let us pass in silence.

It must have been a teaching room for the girls: weaving looms and discarded threads littered the ground. Neutemoc was sitting in its centre, cross-legged on a woven reed mat, hands on his knees, staring distantly at the frescoes on the walls, as if deep in meditation. He wore his Jaguar Knight’s regalia: the jaguar’s skin tightly covering his body, and his face showing through the animal’s open jaws.

I stopped for a moment, suddenly unsure of what I’d say to him. He wasn’t quite the brother I remembered from four years ago. His features had hardened in some indefinable way, and slight wrinkles marred the corner of his eyes, lessening the aura of arrogance that had once permeated every part of his body. He smelled, faintly, of the magic in the room, but most of it was gone: washed, no doubt, at the same time as his hands, which were now clean, their skin the colour of cacao beans.

Neutemoc raised his eyes when I came in. “Hello, brother,” he said. He didn’t sound surprised, or angry, just thoughtful. But his fingers tightened on his knees.

I had been bracing myself for seeing him again, trying to calm the frantic beating of my heart. His face, in the dim light, looked like a younger, softer version of Father’s: an unexpected, additional discomfort.

I knelt by his side and looked at him, trying to see evidence of guilt, or remorse – of anything that would indicate he’d summoned the nahual. His face was clear, guileless, as smooth as that of a seasoned patolli gambler. “Dealing in magic?” I asked, as calmly as I could.

He shook his head. “I had nothing to do with that, believe me.”

The anger in his voice belied his calm assurances. “I don’t,” I said, curtly. “Why don’t you tell me what you were doing in Priestess Eleuia’s rooms, overturning furniture?”

Neutemoc didn’t move, but his eyes flicked away from me. “I don’t have to explain myself to you.”

“Have you no idea of what trouble you’re in? What happened tonight, Neutemoc?”

He opened his mouth to say something, changed his mind with a visible effort, and finally said, “It’s none of your concern.”

None of my concern? Huitzilpochtli curse him, could he be so unaware of what he risked? He’d always been more concerned with the turmoil of the battlefield than with politics, but still… “I think you’ll find it has become my concern tonight,” I said, with some exasperation, remembering that his silence was one of the reasons we’d quarrelled four years ago. “From the moment magic was used to abduct her.”

Neutemoc shifted, looked at the frescoes. “I know I’m in a bad situation, but I didn’t do anything wrong. I’ll swear it on any god you name.”

If only it were that simple. “An oath, even by a Jaguar Knight, won’t be enough in a court of law,” I said. “Why don’t you explain to me what happened?”

Neutemoc just stared at the frescoes. Finally he said, “I came to visit my daughter Ohtli. She entered the calmecac a few months ago, and Huei thought I could see how our daughter was doing. I was halfway to Ohtli’s room when I heard a noise coming from a nearby courtyard, and…” He trailed off, closed his eyes. “When I entered the room, something leapt at me and knocked me against the wall. I was thrown unconscious and, when I woke up, your people had arrested me for the Duality knows what offence.”

His story was barely coherent. It didn’t account for the blood, or the marks on him. “And you overturned the furniture because you weren’t sure what had leapt at you?” I asked, fighting to keep my sarcasm in check. “Come on, Neutemoc. I’m sure you can do better than this.”

He shook his head. “It’s the truth, Acatl.”

I didn’t believe a word he had said. But he was obviously not going to admit to anything, not unless I forced him into it.

I went to the door, and motioned Yaotl in.

“Anything you want?” he asked me.

“Can you ask the priestesses if there’s a girl named Ohtli here, of the Atempan calpulli clan? She’d be about–” I thought back to the last time I’d seen Neutemoc’s daughters – “seven years old.”

Yaotl shrugged. “Easily done,” he said. “They keep records of every girl-child in the school.”

I glanced at Neutemoc, who was watching me, his eyes widening slightly. It was not a kind threat, the one I was about to make, either for him or for Ohtli, but his life was at stake. “If you find her, can you have her brought here? Tell her I have some questions for her.”

“Acatl, no! She’s only a child. At least have the decency to keep her out of this.”

The insult stung, but I didn’t move. “You were the one who introduced her name into the conversation.”

Neutemoc’s hands clenched. “It was a mistake. Ohtli has nothing to do with this, nothing at all. I didn’t get to her room, I swear.”

“Then please show a little more co-operation.”

“Acatl–” He was pleading now, and it made me ill at ease. I’d never enjoyed reducing people to helplessness.

“It’s a pretty story you told me,” I said. “But it doesn’t fit what I saw in that room, or what the Guardian saw.”

Neutemoc looked at me, and at Yaotl, who already had a hand on the entrance-curtain. “Very well,” he said, finally. “I’ll tell you. But in private.”

“Nothing is private,” I said. “Your testimony–”

“Acatl.” His voice cut as deep as an obsidian blade. “Please.”

He was my brother, the threat of death hanging over him, yet I could afford no favouritism. Everyone should be treated according to their status, noblemen and Jaguar Knights more harshly than commoners. “I’ll listen to you in private,” I said. “But I’ll make no guarantee I won’t pass it on.”

Neutemoc’s face was flat, taut with fear. He glanced at Yaotl – tall, scarred, unbending – and finally nodded.

Yaotl slipped out, drawing the entrance-curtain closed in a tinkle of bells. He barked orders, and footsteps echoed in the corridor: the warriors, moving away from the door.

I sat by Neutemoc’s side, keeping one hand on the handle of the obsidian daggers I always had in my belt, just as a protection. He hadn’t looked violent, but his mood-swings could be unpredictable. “So?” I asked.

He said, slowly, “I… I knew Priestess Eleuia. We fought together in the war against Chalco. She was a novice priestess of Xochiquetzal then, at the bottom of the hierarchy – but she was magnificent.” He shook his head. “We slept together.”

Priestesses of Xochiquetzal were sacred courtesans, accompanying the warriors on their campaigns. They were also warriors in their own right, fighting the enemy with their long, deadly spears. “You slept with her in Chalco,” I said, flatly. “That was sixteen years ago.”

I was starting to suspect what Neutemoc had been doing in Eleuia’s room. The idea was decidedly unpleasant.

“Yes,” Neutemoc said. “I didn’t think much of it, at the time. I had my marriage coming, and we drifted apart.” He closed his eyes, spoke with care, as if he were composing a poem: each word slowly falling into place with the inevitability of a heartbeat. “I met her again two months ago, when I enrolled Ohtli. I had no idea she’d been posted here. We sat together and reminisced about the past, and all we’d lived through together… She hadn’t changed, Acatl. Still the same as she’d been, all those years ago. Still the same smile, the same gestures that would drive a man mad with desire.”

The Storm Lord smite him, surely he hadn’t dared? “Neutemoc–”

His lips had gone white. “You asked, Acatl. You wanted to know why I was here tonight. I had an assignation. She… she flirted with me, quite ostentatiously.”

And he’d gone to her rooms. “You gave in?” I rose, towered over him. “You were stupid enough to give in?”

“You don’t understand.”

“No,” I said. “You’re right. I don’t understand why you’d endanger all you’ve got for a pretty smile.” Eleuia was no longer a sacred courtesan: to sleep with her was adultery. And for that, they would both be put to death. And then… No more quetzal feathers, no more showers of gold brought to his luxurious home; no more calmecac education for his sons or his daughters, or for our orphaned sister.

I said, haltingly, “For the Duality’s sake! You’ve got a family, you’ve got a loving wife.”

Everything – he had everything my parents had wished for their children: the glory of a successful warrior – and not the poverty-ridden life of a measly priest, barely able to support himself, let alone take care of his aged parents…

Neutemoc smiled. “You’re ill-informed, brother. Huei and I haven’t talked for a while.”

I blinked. “What?”

He shrugged. “Private matters,” he said.

“Such as your sleeping with a few priestesses?” I asked, rubbing the salt on his wounds. If he had indeed been unfaithful, Huei would have kept silent: if not for his sake, then for the sake of their children.

He finally opened his eyes to stare at me, and his gaze was ice. “I haven’t committed adultery. Even tonight, though that was rather unexpected.” He laughed, sharply, sarcastically. “I know what you think. What a man I make, huh?”

“Don’t push me. Or I might just leave you in peace.”

“You’ve already done too much as it is.” Neutemoc’s hands clenched again.

“You were the one who brought me into this, all because you were incapable of resisting a woman’s charms,” I snapped.

Neutemoc was silent for a while, looking at me with an expression I couldn’t interpret. “You’re right. I shouldn’t have said that. I apologise. Can we go back to where we were?”

I had been bracing myself for a further attack; this extinguished my anger as efficiently as water poured on a hearth. Struggling to hide my surprise, I nodded. “So you came to her rooms with the promise of a pleasurable evening. I assume you got in by pretending you were here to see your daughter?”

He shrugged. “It was before sunset. Nothing wrong with my visiting her.”

“But you didn’t.”

“No,” Neutemoc said. “I– Eleuia had told me where her rooms were. I went there and found her waiting for me. She poured me a glass of frothy chocolate, with milk and maize gruel – good chocolate, too, very tasty. That’s the last thing I remember clearly. Then the room was spinning, and…” His hand clenched again. “There was darkness, Acatl, deeper than the shadows of Mictlan. Something leapt at her. I tried to step in, but everything went dark. When I woke up, I was alone, and covered in her blood.”

It still sounded as though he was leaving out parts of the story – probably Eleuia’s seduction of him, which I didn’t think I was capable of hearing out in any case – but this version sounded far more sincere than the first one he’d given me. Which, of course, didn’t mean it was the truth. If he and Eleuia had consummated their act, he could have panicked and decided she was a risk to him while she still lived. I didn’t like the thought, but Neutemoc was a canny enough man, or he wouldn’t have risen so high in the warrior hierarchy.

“You could at least have had the intelligence to get out as soon as you could,” I said. “What about the furniture?”

He stared at me. “Furniture? I… You know, I don’t quite remember about that. I think I must have wanted to make sure I hadn’t left any trace of my passage.”

Not a sensible thing to do. But then, would I be sensible, if I woke up in a deserted room, covered in blood, with no memory of what had happened?

“Very well,” I said. “Do you have anything that can prove your story?”

Neutemoc stared at me, shocked. “I’m your brother, Acatl. Isn’t my word enough?”

He was really slow tonight. “We already went through that, remember?” I tried to keep my voice as calm as possible. “Your word alone won’t sway the magistrates.”

“Magistrates.” His voice was flat.

“It will come to trial,” I said.

I’d expected him to be angry. Instead, he suddenly went as still as a carved statue. His lips moved, but I couldn’t hear any word.


He looked up, right through me. “It’s only fair, I suppose,” he said. “Deserved.”

My stomach plummeted. “Why did you deserve it?”

But he wouldn’t talk to me any more, no matter how many times I tried to draw him out of his trance.

Ceyaxochitl was waiting for me in the corridor, talking to Yaotl. He threw me an amused glance as I got closer.

“So?” Ceyaxochitl asked.

I shrugged. “His story holds together.”

“But you don’t like it,” she said, as shrewd as ever.

“No,” I said. “There’s something he’s not telling me.” And my brother had tried to sleep with a priestess; had tried to cheat on his wife. I was having trouble accepting it. It did not sound like something that would happen to my charmed-life brother.

“Where does the world go, if you can’t trust your own brother?” Yaotl asked, darkly amused.

As far as I knew, Yaotl, a captive foreigner Ceyaxochitl had bought from the Tlatelolco marketplace, had a wife – a slight, pretty woman who seldom spoke to strangers – but no other family. At least, not the kind that lived close enough to get him embroiled in their troubles.

Lucky man.

“What about the nahual trail?” Ceyaxochitl asked.

“It vanishes into thin air, halfway up a wall no animal could jump.”

“Hum,” Ceyaxochitl said. “Odd. We’ve searched every room, and the nahual isn’t here.”

“They don’t just vanish,” I said.

“I know,” Ceyaxochitl said. She frowned. “We’re no nearer finding Priestess Eleuia than we were one hour ago. I’ll instruct the search parties to cast a wider net.”

She waited, no doubt for my acquiescence. It was an unsettling thought to be in charge of the investigation. Eleuia had been about to become Consort of Xochipilli. This meant that she would have been connected to the Imperial Court, in one way or another. Given the political stakes, I had better be very careful of where I trod; and politics had never been my strength. “Shouldn’t you be back at the palace?” I asked her.

Ceyaxochitl snorted. “I can spare one night to help you start. But only one.”

I nodded. She’d been clear enough on that. I couldn’t fault her for her frankness, even if sometimes she wounded me without realising she did so.

If the blood in the room and on Neutemoc’s hands had indeed belonged to Eleuia, time was against us. “Send them out,” I said. “I’ll go and talk to Zollin.”