Archive for the ‘Modern Thrillers’ Category
Some time ago I read the first of James Douglas’s “Jamie Saintclair” thrillers, and I’ve been awaiting thne opportunity to get to the second. Well, now I’ve finally read The Isis Covenant.
There is a certain genre of tale that was made popular by Dan Brown, owing to Indiana Jones and revolving around the mystical and the occult in the modern world. And despite Brown’s fame, there are plenty of writers who, to my mind, are better examples. One is Simon Toyne. Another is James Douglas.
Douglas’ thrillers strike, for me, a superb balance. They revolve around an art dealer and antiquarian, which links the modern to the ancient and strikes a chord with the historian in me. And they revolve around mystical objects, whether they be true or simply misinterpretations of the mundane, which adds the thrill. And finally, at least with the first two books, they connect with the Second World War and the Nazi lunatics’ search for occult items to help empower their master race (a subject that’s a guilty pleasure for me). Superb mix, and guarenteed to hit the spot in at least some way for most readers.
The Isis Covenant takes characters and some dangling threads from the first book in the series and reintroduces them, tugging on those threads and using them to weave a whole new story.
A twisted son, a vengeful neo-Nazi, a stymied cop and Jamie Saintclair all seeking an ancient Egyptian crown and the priceless stone that has long been separated from it together believed to bestow prolonged life. And the search will take them into the world of ageing secret Nazis, Russian gangsters, American assassins and so much more.
Utterly satisfying, well-plotted, gripping and colourful, the Isis Covenant is a perfect sequel to the first great book in the series.
I’ve not read Smith’s previous Hector Cross novels, so it is possible that I was a bit of a disadvantage reading this, given the clear complexity of the characters’ backgrounds where they have crossed paths more than once. Fortunately the history is fairly well explained in around the first 10% of the book, though it does come across a little as being sort of shoehorned in to set the scene so the story can leap forward.
I’m not sure how much of the book was Wilbur Smith and how much Tom Cain (who I’ve not read) but to me the prose felt slightly different from Smith’s usual form – though not in a bad way. Just different.
The plot moves forward apace at all times and rarely lags at all, which is good with this sort of thriller. One seeks immediacy and excitement, after all. From the initial jailbreak – not a spoiler really, since it’s at the start – through the whole text, there’s a rousing quality to the book and a fairly cinematic feel.
The characters are, in fairness, a little 2-dimensional for me. The hero is just a little bit too heroic and powerful, the bad guy is lifted straight from a scene where he should be torturing James Bond, etc. Mind you, with thrillers, strong character archetypes help drive the plot, and it might be that a little more greyness and depth of character could have slowed the tale.
The storytelling itself flip-flops a little between cliched soap-opera and excellent in-your-face phrasing. The result is not jarring, though, and for me the moments of sheer genius prose more than made up for the more eye-rolling moments.
Overall? For me this is not a genre-defining novel, and don’t expect great literary fayre. But if what you’re looking for is a few hours of fun excitement with solidly-written action scenes and villains you can boo at, then you can do a lot worse than Predator.
October 32nd is perfect Halloween reading. I know, I know. I read it in February. Might go back and read it in October again. Probably a little too scary to read to my kids, so there goes that excuse!
I read a fair few novellas and short-ish tales, and quite a lot of them are the horror/mystery/creepy variety. Only occasional ones make it to review. Larry Rodness deserves to be here. October 32nd is an easy, absorbing read with a fresh plot, an atmospheric style and a clever set of twists.
Reminding me of the old Twilight Zone or Outer Limits stories, October 32nd tells the tale of an Insurance agent (Alexander Malefant) visiting a small US town called Elora in the line of work. It is Halloween and the town is in the opening throes of a Halloween festival that goes back decades, with – at its heart – competitions against other local towns for a trophy which Elora has won for the past 50 years. In the very beginning we are introduced to a woman considered a witch, families who feud and argue, inept police, the near fatal drowning of a boy, and a town which seems oddly out of place – a throwback to older days. But that’s just the start. When the town’s children go missing and their shoes are found hanging in a tree, everything explodes. The town’s ‘witch’ is vilified, accusations are thrown about, affairs uncovered, and a little of Malefant’s own clouded history begin to emerge. All in Elora is not what it seems, and it may not be by accident that Malefant is here on this day. A huge secret is about to unravel, but even that will not be the end of things.
There is more than one twist and turn in this fascinating tale, which is well plotted, well written and, unusually these days, surprisingly free of the typos and errors that seem endemic of indie or small-publisher releases. All in all a good read. And if you don’t fancy it now, bookmark it for Halloween.
Every now and then I read something completely on spec that is very much outside my comfort zone. It does you good to vary your reading and experiences, of course. And having caught sight of this book and its author in a Twitter conversation, I felt it deserved a try.
The Holy Thief takes place in 1930s Soviet Moscow and follows a rather complex investigation by a police officer into a grisly murder. The investigation leads the somewhat world-weary and rather un-Sovietly inquisitive Korolev into a world of truly dangerous and complicated plots. The murders are associated with the sale of valuables by the Russian state to fund the Five Year Plan and the disappearance of one particular valuable. A simple (though not really so much) murder investigation is made more difficult by the interference of the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) who have their own connected investigation going, foreign nationals, the now-banned Orthodox Church, the semi-official organised crime echelons and so much more.
You know those American movies where it turns out not to be a simple FBI investigation, because the CIA and the NSA are involved and some senator or other is out for himself and using them all, and everything descends in a spiral of espionage and deceit? Well that sort of thing plays equally well in 30s Russia, apparently. The plot is well weaved, but it made all the better by the labyrinthine webs of official government departments.
The feel of the book, for me, is something like a cross between the movies Gorky Park and Enemy Of The State with a healthy dose of film noir. The main character is extremely believable and despite the clever connections he makes and the string of punishments he suffers, there is nothing unrealistic there. He is simply lucky, bright and bloody minded.
But for me there is one aspect that makes the book a win. Despite great characters and a good plot, the best thing about the Korolev mysteries so far is the atmosphere. The author’s knowledge and research have been poured into the book until it surpasses the ‘full’ mark and have left us with something that feels REALLY authentic. It made me endlessly grateful that I don’t live in 30s Moscow, for a start. You can almost feel the grimy, rainy street beneath you as you read. Few authors have achieved quite such a level of authenticity in a setting.
Basically the book wins on so many levels. I recommend buying it and reading it. It’ll keep you riveted right to the very end.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Inceptio. I’d heard of it, seen the rather handsome cover and actually met Alison briefly at a historical fiction do, and when I had a gap in my revue pile, I slotted it in for a read.
Firstly, let me say that I really enjoyed the book. It was engaging and fasincating, thrilling in places and beautifully described. The characters were quite realistic and empathic.
So what is it like, given my aforementioned lack of expectations? Well, I’d say few readers will get everything they seek from it, but most certainly everyone will get something. The obsessive Roman fiction nuts might find it a little too modern. The crime nuts may cluck at their plot being laden with alternate history. The sci-fi lovers will approve of some of the concepts, but could find too much history and realistic modern world filtered in. The Romance lovers might be irked that thrillerdom keeps getting in the way. But the simple thing is that few readers are so specific, and most readers will find at least one aspect of Inceptio that they love, while many will appreciate the all-round. Because there’s crime, thriller, action, military, romance, hints of sci-fi-near-future, exploration of character and so much more. And anyone who likes any of that will read this and enjoy it.
So this is alternate history. A recreation of the modern world in which some decision was made another way at some point in history and things turned out differently. The story takes as its premise not a world in which Rome did not fall, but a world in which a small Roman colony in the Alps survived that fall and the fall of Byzantium in the east, going on to become some sort of Romanized utopia with overtones of Switzerland. And because of the presence of this nation, the rest of the world has developed slightly differently.
Our heroine, Karen (at least for some of the time!) finds her normal New York life turned upside down following a small incident, which sets in motion a chain of events that leads to her learning that she is in fact an heiress, a noble, even a scion of a family in Roma Nova. There ensues a tale that is one of self discovery and personal re-creation as Karen discovers life in the world of New Rome while pyscopaths hunt her, men vie for her attentions and a growing sense of duty forces her to train, learn and join paramilitary forces.
Parts of this story will surprise you, parts will excite you, and parts will enthrall you, but all of it will make you think and make you want to know what happents next. I find it hard to believe you will read Inceptio and not find something about it that really grabs you.
In short, go get Inceptio and introduce yourself to the world of Roma Nova.
I’ve been a fan of Doug Jackson’s writing for a long time, from his Roman work on the Caligula series and the Hero of Rome series to his Jamie Sinclair novels. Quite simply, unless he contemplated regency romance, there probably isn’t a Jackson novel I wouldn’t read. When I learned that he had taken an unpublished manuscript and released it himself as an ebook I was clearly going to read it.
The first thing that strikes me is that I read a lot of fiction released by big publishing houses and I read a lot of independent fiction (which varies in quality from the sublime to the ridiculous). This is the second time I have read an independent release by an otherwise traditionally published author. And what I noted straight away is that it further blurs the line between the two. A good independently published book is better than a poor traditionally published one. And this is for certain a really good independently published book. In fact, Transworld might have slipped up in letting this one pass. Well, Transworld’s loss is our gain, as you can buy the ebook of War Games for £2.15.
Tell you about the book, you say?
Alright. War Games is a modern thriller rooted in Scottish history, which occupies that same niche as the author’s Sinclair novels, or any number of investigative thrillers. But it is different. The protagonist of War Games is… a psychic investigator. The urge to add ‘Duh, duh, duhhhhhh’ after that is almost irresistable. The concept might put some folk off, I’ll admit. I’m not a huge fan of the psychic angle in book or film myself, but if it is done well, then it’s a great read. I’ll come back to the plot after a couple of tangents.
The book is set in the lowlands and borders of Scotland, which is Doug’s home territory, and the level of depth of knowledge and love that has gone into the descriptions of the locations is wonderful. And I am familiar with the area, having spent time at many of the locations myself, so I can vouch for how spot on Doug’s descriptions are.
The book is set in the present day (give or take a few years) but the plot delves into a background that covers anything from the ancient world up, focusing very heavily on the 12th to 14th centuries. Since we are familiar with the author’s historical knowledge and ability from other books, it should be no suprise how well this informs the plot and text of War Games.
The narration is told in the first person, and with an almost ‘voice-over’ aspect that puts me in mind of the classive film noir detectives, or the original theatrical release of Blade Runner. To some extent this can ham up a plot, but that can be a drawback or a bonus, depending on how it is integrated into the story. In War Games I found it positively endearing. It was evocative of so many detective movies of my youth and cast a certain ‘book noir’ aspect to it that worked for me.
As I said, I generally avoid all things psychic, but saying that I absolutely love the Necroscope novels of Brian Lumley which feature a whole slew of psychically-enabled investigators working for the British government. The reason? It was REALLY well done. It was believable and played to the realist in me rather than promoting the fantastical. Jackson’s hero does the same. The psychic aspect of it is such a minor facet of the whole and is so downplayed and shot through with strains of realism that it comes across as perfectly normal, which is hard to do, and works well.
So go on… back to the plot. Glen Savage – Falkland islands and Northern Ireland veteran and unhappy psychic is living close to the breadline trying to support himself and his wonderful wife, who suffers badly with MS, when he is offered a lucrative contract by a Muslim Scot with seemingly unlimited funds. Having spent the time between his military service and this point with a brief flare of a career as the psychic that helps the police – at least until that cash cow caught foot and mouth – he is the only choice Mr Ali can turn to when his daughter goes missing and the police are particularly unhelpful.
Cue an investigation into a crazed serial killer who is driven by madness and an odd identification with a long-dead crusader to murder those he sees as enemies of the faith.
And that’s enough of plot. I don’t want to ruin it. A last few notes, though. This is a tale with a serious leaning towards religious schism and long-standing creed hatred combined with a serial killer tale on a par with the top writers in the field. The writing is excellent as always, but with a raw edge and ‘noir’ aspect that adds atmosphere to the story. And the sideline exploration into the world of living with Multiple Sclerosis is fascinating too.
In short, War Games is a really absorbing story that hits the mark in a number of ways. I heartily recommend it.
And to give you a great glimpse into the world behind the book, I managed to get the author to answer a few questions. Thank you, Doug, and here we go…
SIMON: Most of the locations in War Games are strewn around the borders and lowlands of Scotland. I’m quite familiar with a few of the sites myself and I know that you’re from the area. How much were the locations selected in line with your plot, or was the plot to some extent tweaked by the inclusion of locations you were dying to use?
DOUG: When I finished my first novel (it became Caligula, but I didn’t then have publisher) I had no idea what to do next, but I’d enjoyed it so much it seemed a pity not to write another. By then I knew I was I capable of writing a historical novel, so why not try something different? What came next was a crime novel written in the first person because the main character started talking to me in my sleep in a kind of Fifties Noir Sam Spade voiceover kind of way. When I started writing it I had an idea that I wanted to make the Borders a character, in the way James Lee Burke does with so successfully with New Orleans and the Bayou. I suppose there was also an element of passing on my love of what is a very special place and encouraging others to visit it.The actual locations were dictated by the need to have links with one of the main historical figures in the book.
*Note from Simon: this answer came after I had written the bulk of the review, and I am fascinated by the synergy between what I got from the book and what Doug intended.*
SIMON: Was it interesting writing about a subject that is local in both time and place rather than the ancient world or thrillers that range around the globe? Did you find anything different about the process?
DOUG: Probably the most difficult thing about writing a contemporary novel in a place you’re very familiar with is to ensure that none of the events or locations comes across as mundane. When Glen Savage walks down a street or drives along a road he always has to be thinking something fascinating to do with the case, or his own, very specialised situation, and experiencing the sense of place very vividly.
SIMON: There is something of a religious conflict theme to the novel which in light of more recent events is actually quite current, but also runs the risk of that old chestnut of something you should never discuss. Were you nervous about touching on the religious theme and the relations between Islamic and Christian characters, and were you forced to make any changes to your story to avoid trouble?
DOUG: I had to think long and hard about some of the religious and cultural aspects of the book and the actions of some of the characters. But when you’re writing a murder mystery about a contemporary killer whose actions are being driven by events that happened hundreds of years ago you’re on relatively safe ground. The events and the inhumanity we see all around us every day go far beyond anything in the book.
SIMON: I have always been impressed by your level of research and knowledge when writing your Roman novels, but it is plainly obvious from your other works that you are well versed in the subject of the modern military. Added to that the police procedural aspects of War Games, and I’m led to ask how much your career in reporting and newspapers has contributed to your wealth of knowledge?
DOUG: My background as a journalist certainly helps. It is amazing the detail you pick up along the way. I’ve attended dozens of trials, several of them involving murder, and that gives you an insight into how the police work. That said I don’t need too much detail about the likes of forensics and pathology because Glen only knows what he knows and any other information he gets is from internet research in the same way I do. I’ve always been interested in military matters. When I was young I wanted to join the army, but as I got older it became clear I was too much of a wimp. I have hundreds of books on the subject and have read many hundreds more over the years. As far as the army etc are concerned I’m comfortable in just about any age, though I sometimes have to research the fine detail. I love playing at being a general. If only they’d let me join at that rank, with a batman with a G&T at hand at all times.
SIMON: Despite writing novels based in the Roman era (a very superstitious time) and esoteric modern thrillers which touch on mysterious subjects, your protagonists have thus far all been solidly rooted in the pragmatic world. For all the realism of the lead character in War Games, the fact cannot be avoided that he is a Psychic Investigator. What led you to explore such an idea, and was it difficult keeping the ‘real feel’ of the novel with such an unusual lead?
DOUG: I think that if you’re writing a contemporary detective novel in such a crowded genre your character has to have something that makes him different, so that and the fact that the police do call on psychics was the trigger for the psychic angle. The Savage character is actually based on a sergeant in the Scots Guards I met on a freezing day in Crossmaglen, young and very personable man, but hard as nails and probably the most – I think the word is competent – individual I’ve ever met. The most difficult part was deciding just how psychic to make him. He can’t know too much or he’d just be able to point to the killer, and he can’t use it too little or what’s the point of having the ability. In the end I decided to make his powers sporadic and relatively unreliable, so that sometimes he’s as sceptical of his ability as other people are. He’s a man who exudes confidence, but his experiences in the Falklands have left him mentally fragile.
SIMON: Will there be another Glen Savage mystery?
DOUG: War Games is actually the second Glen Savage book I’ve written, but people I showed it to thought the first – Brothers in Arms – which documents what happened to him in the war, as well as investigating the mysterious deaths of some of his former comrades – worked better as a second book. The problem with that is that I had to incorporate several key introductory scenes from Brothers into War Games, so I need to do some rewriting before I self-publish it. I’m slightly off the pace with my current Valerius novel, so unfortunately I don’t have the time at the moment but hopefully before Christmas.
Well all I can say is how much I enjoyed the book and how grateful I am that the author took the time to answer my questions. Thank you Doug for your insight.
Go buy the book folks, right HERE
Anyone who caught my blog post on Monday would probably have realised then what a glowing review this book was lined up to get. From near the start I knew it was destined for my annual top 10, and by half way through it had solidly claimed the #1 spot of anything I’d read this year (against some pretty stiff opposition too!) And basically any novel I read between now and New Year is really going to have to go some to challenge this one.
So now: how to go about reviewing Into The Fire without risking spoilers. I will do it.
And for that I’ll tackle the plot first.
In an unusual treat, this novel is written in two timelines, with two interlinked stories that run concurrently throughout the book. Orleans in 2014 is the setting for an investigation into murder and arson, compounded with political intrigues leading up to an important election, strained relationships in and out of work, shadows of the past that are long and all-consuming and racial/religious tensions. Capitaine Inès Picaut really has her work cut out fighting the clock to solve her case in the midst of media frenzy, hampered by some vivid and truly believable characters. And at the root of much of this trouble there are threads suggesting a connection to events some six centuries earlier. Cue plotline 1, which takes place in 1429, following the rise of the girl who became a saint – Jehanne d’Arc. The story is not told from her perspective, though, as she begins to turn the tide against the English in the Hundred Years’ War only to fall foul of her own success and betrayal and jealously among her countrymen, quite aside from the many enemies of France who want to see her destroyed. The protagonist for this timeline is Tod Rustbeard, a Scottish/French spy working for the powerful Duke of Bedford, and it is fascinating to watch how Tod (Tomas) grows and changes throughout the three years of his story. And as the novel progresses, there is never any doubt that how the Maid of Orleans’ story ends will have deep and far reaching effects on Capitaine Picaut’s investigation.
I will tell you no more of the plot. I won’t spoil it for you. I can only suggest with every ounce of my being that you buy the book and read it at your earliest opportunity.
In terms of language, tense and person in a book can change the entire feel of the story for me. I am always comfortable with the familiar and most common third person perfect tense (eg ‘Manda Scott wrote an excellent book’) and have recently become quite a devotee of first person perfect (‘I read an excellent book’.) I still have trouble with first person present, which I come across occasionally (‘I reach out and grasp the book’) which I find makes for hard reading and unnecessary concentration on text rather than content. Into The Fire is written (unusually in my experience) in third person present tense (‘John sells a book’.) For maybe a chapter or two I found I had to adjust to this style, and worried that it would make the book a rather involved read. I was wrong. In fact, it became very familiar and comfortable as a style, and because of the tense, lent the story a directness and immediacy that would have been missing in a perfect tense. So bravo for that, Manda. The tension of the medieval espionage and of the contemporary police thriller are jacked up a notch just through the decision to write in this manner.
Interestingly, while the story of Jehanne d’Arc ranges across medieval France in line with historical events, the modern thriller takes place in a remarkably small area, rarely leaving Orleans and even then not travelling far. This means that while we are treated to the exotic glory of some of France’s most impressive locations, we get to know Orleans well, from its physical geography to its people, its organisations and even its media and its crime. There is definitely something to be said for thoroughly exploring a location in text rather than ranging far and wide, and the detail of modern Orleans adds to the realism and the credibility of the plot.
The characters I have already touched on to some extent, but they deserve their own mention. Every character is realistic. I mean right down to the faceless ones, let alone those with a speaking part. The main characters (Cpt Picaut and Tod Rustbeard) are as deep and well constructed as any character I’ve read (precisely what I’d expect from the writer who brought us Pantera in the Rome series. The former is a thoughtful, intelligent and strong police officer, who is not without her faults, of course, with plenty of demons in her past who influence her present in so many ways. The latter, I thought initially to be a fairly brash and unlikeable man, but who quickly develops to be far, far more and so much deeper, himself living with a past that has left marks on his soul. To some extent, I found myself hoping for redemption and success on Rustbeard’s part from a fairly early stage. The supporting cast too are well-written and credible. From the fascinating Patrice – the police’s pet technology genius – to the captain’s estranged and soon-to-be-ex husband, Luc and his inscrutable sister Lise, to the leader of an Algerian crime family, and so many more, the contemporary cast are individual and memorable. And from the Maid of Orleans herself, through her own captains, the King’s captivating sister, the Duke of Bedford and the almost-nobodies in the Maid’s army and entourage upon whom Rustbeard’s mission is reliant, the historical cast is intriguing and strong, vividly portrayed and bring that period of history to life.
On a last note about Manda’s work here, it is abundantly clear just how much effort the author has put into the research behind this tale, both in terms of the history and legend of Joan of Arc, and in terms of modern Orleans, French culture and the police work that form the backbone of the plot. Of course, Manda cut her teeth on thrillers before moving into the realm of historical fiction and the ease with which she has combined the two genres to create something special is fascinating. But I challenge you to find a detail out of place or anything that is not perfectly in place in the tale and its prose. Until I had the opportunity last weekend to pose a few questions to the author – even while I was 2/3 of the way through the book – I was under the impression that Into The Fire was a standalone work. I am overjoyed to now know that this is not the case and that a follow up under the current title of Accidental Gods is in the works. I simply cannot wait for that.
So for those of you who’ve not read Manda’s new book, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Six stars out of five. Go buy it, people.
And for the giveaway I ran in my last blog entry, the winner of a signed copy is Ian Robinson, so congrats Ian. Get in touch with an address and thank you.