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Posts Tagged ‘thriller

Court of Broken Knives

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I am an on-off reader of fantasy, partially due to the lack of time I have for reading, which means I really have to focus my decisions to the currently relevant. My fantasy reading has recently been limited to Guy Gavriel Kay (because he has always been my favourite writer) and Miles Cameron, because I know the man, and he is a DUDE! Thus I might have let this one slip by had I not bumped into the author at a convention in Scarborough the year before its publication and thought ‘that sounds interesting. I’ll have to give that a read.’

I will start by saying that it’s perhaps not the easiest read. If you are looking for Pratchett or Eddings or the like, keep looking. But to clarify, I find there are two types of novel into which I can generally categorise everything I read. Some are easy reads. They are like a horse race, where you get caught up in the speed and excitement and dragged break-neck to the end. They are excitement and fun and glory and I love ’em (in movie terms let’s say Kingsman). Other novels can be harder to read, but perhaps have a different sort of reward, pushing you to a more cerebral experience (in movie terms I might offer Schindler’s List). I read fewer of this sort of book, but that does not mean they are not as good or have less to offer. Quite the contrary, in fact. Court of Broken Knives for me fits into that second category. I have pushed myself in its reading, but it has paid off in interesting ways.

I had no preconceptions going into the novel. Plot, I will deal with first. And I will be careful. You know I hate spoilers. The opening plot is simple enough. A party of mercenaries on their way to a foreign city to kill a bunch of people. And those who hired them in the city maneuvering politically throughout. Seems reasonable. A good plot, in fact. Then at maybe 40-50% of the book, everything changes. The plot takes a side alley, zig-zags to lose any anticipated ideas, does a few loop the loops and comes out the other side leaving you rubbing your eyes and wondering if Machiavelli’s line is strong and running in London bloodlines. Other than this I am not going to touch on plot. Just… experience it.

There are two strengths to this novel that stand out for me.

One is the writing itself. Smith-Spark’s prose is far from your standard fare. It is often jagged, broken, staccato. It sometimes flounces and flows into the brain, but often comes at you like knives (quite appropriately, I suppose). In doing so it manages to convey something that is lost in a more commonplace style. There is utter, raw emotion in the prose. Some is first person, some third, some past tense, some present, and the point of view leaps between a number of principle characters. The language is sometimes beautiful and haunting, sometimes sharp and horrifying. But in this manner, it is always refreshing, and I have enjoyed it. It is a style of writing I will long remember and appreciate.

The other is character. Let me say from the outset that this novel is full of utter bastards. There are few people in it who I would give the time of day, and those who are good and sympathetic are so riddled with doubt and demons that they are morally bankrupt anyway. This is a novel FULL of anti-heroes. And you find yourself supporting one against another. Because something about Smith Spark’s characterisation carries the genius of making the irredeemably wicked and unpleasant oddly lovable. I cared about characters I had no right caring about and should really have been rooting for the demise of. Oh, and there’s plenty of that, too. Anthony Riches and myself both have something of a rep for brutally offing important characters. Smith-Spark is no slacker in that department.

In short, prepare yourself for a Machiavellian bloodbath of epic proportions, full of lovably loathsome characters. Settle in, light the fire, pour a fine scotch, and marvel at this new fantasy world.

The Court of Broken Knives is an oddly fascinating gem.

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Written by SJAT

September 21, 2017 at 10:15 pm

Ashes of Berlin

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I’ve been something of a devotee of Luke McCallin’s Reinhardt books since the first one. There was something about the adventures of a distinctly non-Nazi Wehrmacht officer investigating murders in the Balkan territories. It was a region about which I knew little and a time which oddly fascinates me, despite being far from my own era of choice. And interestingly McCallin’s familiarity with the locale and the subject shone through and gave the books great depth and value. I loved both books one and two.

I hesitated over book 3. Honestly, despite loving the first two I really hesitated. Because the war has ended after book 2 and that means that book 3 was guaranteed to be vastly different. Ashes of Berlin is set in 1947, in a city that is divided and overseen by an uneasy alliance of British, American and Russian, with the Germans still there and downtrodden or working desperately with one group or another. I couldn’t see this possibly being anywhere near as engaging as the previous two. But… because it’s McCallin and Reinhardt, I went to it anyway.

In fairness, it took me perhaps the first 10% of the book to get into it. For a while I thought my doubts had been borne out over the setting. But oddly the plot was still grabbing. And so it pulled me along. And I’m glad it did, because after that initial adjustment, I came to appreciate what a rich setting it is.

This world is very different from the wartime Balkans of books 1 and 2, and yet oddly similar in some ways. For Reinhardt, now serving back in the police in Berlin as he once had long ago, he is still beleaguered, untrusting and downtrodden by superiors. They’re just different superiors now. And the brutality and horror of post-war Berlin is every bit the match for the brutality and horror of wartime Sarajevo. McCallin has really pulled out the stops in his research. I cannot imagine how much reading and note-taking he must have gone through for this. But it is a triumph.

The plot is actually better than both the first two. Where books 1 and 2 tended to wander a little by necessity, this one is much tighter and more defined. It is also much harder to anticipate. It unfolds slowly and carefully and caught me out numerous times. I like a good mystery and only with a good plot do I start to guess and work out ahead of the reveal. I was wrong. Several times I was wrong. McCallin has thrown so many curve-balls I kept getting hit in the back of the head.

There are 3 major triumphs in this book for McCallin. The Plot, which I’ve already mentioned. And there’s no point in me trying to explain any of it, but it starts with a man who drowned on dry land, put it that way. Then there’s the world. The atmosphere, the landscape, the descriptive. It is stunning. It becomes immersive and all-consuming. I felt I came to know 1947 Berlin intimately. But thirdly, there is the matter of character. I’d felt there was nowhere really to grow Reinhardt after the war. Gods, but I was wrong. And he is surrounded by a stunning cast. In particular one American, one Brit and one senior Russian. They are so beautifully drawn and realistic it is hard not to picture them in your head.

So there it is. You might have read books 1 and 2 (The Man from Berlin and The Pale House) or you might not. If you haven’t give them a read. If you have, do not be put off by the change of scene with book 3. It outstrips its predecessors. Just read McCallin. He’s a master of the craft.

Written by SJAT

August 12, 2017 at 8:32 pm

The Centurions 1: Betrayal

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I’m sure if you’re reading my blog you’ll already be familiar with Riches’ work, in the form of his late 2nd century ‘Empire’ series. It came as something of a surprise to me last year to learn that while he is still continuing that series, Riches had sidestepped into a slightly earlier era with a trilogy project based on the Batavian Revolt.

For the record, I’m a huge fan of Riches’ Empire series, which has everything I look for in rollicking historical mayhem. But Betrayal is a different beast entirely. It feels considerably more grown-up than the Empire series (which sounds like an insult to Empire, but is not meant as such.) There is just something altogether more serious, thoughtful and… well, grown up… about this series. There’s no other way to put it.

Set during the Year of the Four Emperors, despite my love of Riches’ work, I approached Betrayal nervously. It is an era that has already been plumbed thoroughly by a number of very good writers, and the whole subject has become a little bit stale for me recently, the last good treatment I read being Doug Jackson’s. I needn’t have been concerned. Riches has done himself proud by looking at this oft-viewed piece of history from a new angle and a new point of view, which is impressive.

In fact, the general direction of the book reminded me of Ben Kane’s seemingly preferred angle, taking on a critical event in Roman history from a non-Roman point of view. In this case, it is largely told from the point of view of Civilis, a Batavian officer, with additional angles provided by a number of centurions on different sides of the conflict. And for anyone not familiar with the Year of the Four Emperors, there are most definitely more than two sides to look at.

Initially, I was a little perturbed by the number of angles and viewpoints, to be honest. Be aware that there are a lot of characters and units to familiarise yourself with, and that can require a lot of memory and concentration. But the same could be said with his Empire series, which involves a good number of important supporting characters, and yet that did not take me long to get the hang of. The same is the case here. It did not take too long to start grasping who was who and what was going on.

This is not a straightforward military romp. It is not a ‘swords and sandals adventure’. This is a deeply complex novel and, while it revolves around military units, the first book revolves more around the political machinations of powerful men, tribal politics and the strengths and failings of a number of imperial personas. In fact, battle scenes are rare for a Riches novel, with good in-your-face combat early and late in the story, sandwiching a knotty plot that is treated with respect and intelligence.

And the win for me? It gave me a new respect for the Batavians and their place in Roman history. Made me appreciate and consider the part they played in the early empire and the individuality of a people I had always rather lumped in as ‘one of those tribes.’

This is a superb book, and the start of what promises to be a cracking trilogy, given how this builds, and how it ends. The book is out on March 9th, and I suggest you pre-order it now or set a reminder to buy it in a fortnight!

Isis Covenant

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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.

Written by SJAT

January 31, 2017 at 12:25 am

Vita Brevis

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The seventh novel in Ruth Downie’s Ruso and Tilla series takes us from Roman Britain (the setting for the majority of the books) for our first glimpse of Hadrianic Rome. And what a glimpse it is.

If you follow my reviews at all, you’ll be well aware by now of my opinion of this series and Ruth Downie’s awesome talent for storytelling, so you’ll be unsurprised to know that this is one of my highest rated books.

Following a former commander from Britain, Ruso brings Tilla and their new baby to Rome, seeking the good old ‘streets paved with gold’, only to find out that they are, in fact, paved with charlatans, criminals, gawpers and cockroaches. Oh, and barrels with bodies sealed inside. Yes, Ruso’s getting himself involved once again, entirely through atrocious luck, with a mystery. He receives an offer he cannot refuse: a ready made medical practice with patients, including a rich patron, and accommodation, all just waiting for him. But entirely apart from the delivery of the body in a barrel, he starts to worry that something is wrong because the former doctor has vanished without trace. Cue once again a truly complex, labyrinthine plot. As Ruso and Tilla battle debt collectors, wicked morticians, medical con-men, angry patrons, credulous neighbours, Christians and so many more, Ruso finds his life spiralling once more out of control, his reputation hanging on  knife edge, Tilla trying to hold things together.

As with all Ruth’s plots, Vita Brevis is a masterpiece of subtlety and complexity intertwined. As with all her books, character, colour, detail, pace and humour are prime movers. The characters are so well constructed, and we’ve known that since book 1, but the fact is they have have 6 books to grow, and they are now old friends. Well, the main characters are. The supporting ones are new, obviously, but are instantly dislikeable. Oh, some are likeable, but the majority are unpleasant, oily, corrupt Roman city-folk. And colour? Well, you just won’t believe the colour of the Rome Ruth paints until you read it. Detail? Well there are very few writers I have read who have anything close to Downie’s knowledge of her era. She is skilled as an author but also knowledgeable as a historian and archaeologist. I always feel confident with her work that I am experiencing the closest thing to actually being there. Pace is easy. It is almost impossible to put down a Ruth Downie book. They drag you in and then pull you along until you blink in disbelief that you’re at the end. and finally, humour. Well, there is so little light-hearted or humorous material to be found in the genre, that to see the ongoing quirky humour of Ruso and Tilla is always a heartwarming thing.

Gods, but Vita Brevis (Life is Short) is the latest in the series. This is the first time I’ve finished a Ruso book without there being another one waiting to be read. Come on Ruth. Maybe we can somehow push the calendar forward a year? In short: buy this book. Read this book.

Written by SJAT

November 22, 2016 at 10:22 pm

Tabula Rasa

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Only an excellent writer with a superb set of characters and an imagination full of fresh ideas can fuel a series to last more than maybe 4 or 5 books in a series. The fact that Tabula Rasa is book 6 in Ruth Downie’s series, then, is telling. The fact that, yet again, it is an absolutely cracking tale is even better.

I figure I’m past having to explain why I love Ruth’s books at this point, but to recap my view over the whole series, this is it in a nutshell:

  • Truly believable, very sympathetic and engaging characters
  • Intricate, carefully-crafted plots
  • Deep, realistic, historically accurate portrayal of the ancient world
  • Fascinating details that add colour and realism
  • Quirky sense of humour that always hits the spot
  • True historical mysteries, shot through with shrewd social observations

So there you go. That’s why I love the Ruso books. This book, in particular, brings in some of my favourite characters in the whole series. Some returning, some new. Tribune Accius, Valens, Albanus, Virana… and in particular Pertinax and Fabius. Oh, boy but Fabius is one of my fabourite supporting characters of any book I’ve read.

Tabula Rasa (‘Clean Slate’) is set in the forts on the Stanegate during the building of Hadrian’s wall. Ruso is back with the army, along with his better half, Tilla. He is serving as the medic in a tiny fort in the middle of nowhere that happens (much to his chagrin) to be close to the farm of one of Tilla’s relatives. Essentially the root of the tale is a case of ‘missing person’. Well, missing persons, at least. Ruso’s clerk has vanished, while his uncle Albinus is coming north to see him. And a local boy has vanished. As if the tension between locals and Roman invaders were not enough, the medicus pulls what I am coming to think of as ‘a Ruso’ and exacerbates the situation completely by accident. What follows is an excellent investigation that roams across the Stanegate forts and even beyond the wall, searching for the boy and trying to piece together why he was taken.

This area is somewhat home turf for me, so it was fascinating to read about places I know well. And I have to say I’d not twigged what was going on until Ruth revealed the truth towards the end of the book, so kudos there.

As usual, Tabula Rasa is pacy, clever, witty, thought-provoking and fascinating. I am starting to twitch at the thought that I now only have one Ruso book left before I will have to wait like everyone else.

Highly recommended as always. Ruth Downie’s books sell themselves.

Written by SJAT

October 21, 2016 at 9:02 am

Semper Fidelis

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Book 5 in my tour of the life of Ruso and Tilla. It’s a rollercoaster ride, for sure. I’ve followed Ruso and his slave/housekeeper/girlfriend/wife from Chester to Northumberland, to the south of France, then London, and now to York. It’s like a pit-stop tour of some of my favourite places guided by two of my favourite characters and penned by one of my favourite writers.

If you don’t know how much I love Ruth’s books by now then you’re clearly new to the blog. The Ruso mysteries are at the very top level of their genre – atmospheric, elegantly-plotted, immersively historical and delivered with rich prose. And yet also truly human tales, shot through with a sense of humour that never fails to make me smile and occasionally with deeper pathos. Ruso is not so much hapless as unlucky. He is skilled and clever and full of innovation, and yet regularly makes rather critical mistakes and finds himself in a mess. Tilla is practical and sensible and yet prone to headstrong decisions that show little forethought. Together they should be able to tackle any problem and yet more often than not they cause each other problems and worsen the situation exponentially. It makes for really engaging reading.

In Semper Fidelis (‘Always Faithful’, the motto of the US Marine Corps) we are brought to York as Ruso joins a small unit of the 20th legion who are there training recruits as they await the arrival of the 6th legion, who will be based there shortly. Ruso is back with the army now after his brief foray into the world of fiscal investigation, and the army is the focus of this book. For in York (Eboracum), the largely empty fortress has played host to native British legionary trainees, martinet centurions, beleaguered medics and desperate camp-followers. And a series of accidents and incidents that are believed to be a result of the curse on the unit point- to a clever investigator, anyway – to brutal and unacceptable behaviour on the part of the training officers.

Ruso and Tilla finds their selves delving into the incidents that have taken place and uncovering unpleasant truths within the army and landing their selves in deep trouble, which is only compounded all the more when the emperor Hadrian, his wife Sabina, and a unit of Praetorians arrive rather unexpectedly. Ruso knows Hadrian of old, since long before he came to power. You might think he could count on an old comrade to look after him. You might think that….

Semper Fidelis is yet again a beautiful offering from the pen of Ruth Downie and deserves to be read and enjoyed by all.

Oh, and the dog bite… Heh heh heh.

Go read it folks. It’s a treat.

Written by SJAT

October 6, 2016 at 8:51 am