Red Sister (Mark Lawrence)

5 stars

“I was born for killing – the gods made me to ruin”

At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.

But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this book. I wasn’t a fan of Lawrence’s ‘Broken Empire’ series, I couldn’t get into the mindset of the protagonist at all. I wasn’t even going to pick up this book initially, but reviews from friends lavished it in praise and I put in a review request, and then, assuming said request had been rejected, bought a copy. A copy arrived in my inbox just as another dropped on my doorstep and, I thought, well, this book and I were just meant to be together.

This book starts with an epilogue of sorts, but I won’t say too much about it, because to do so would be to ruin other parts of the story. The first entree into Nona’s story proper isn’t even through her own eyes, it’s through the eyes of a friend who’s viewing what little is left of their dwindling life from the wooden boards below a noose. Needless to say, the book opens with Nona having been sentenced to death for a crime unknown, and escaping the noose only through the good graces of the Abbess of the Convent of Sweet Mercy.

What follows after is my favourite sort of book. I am a complete sap for schools of magic and violence, all of my favourite books have some kind of place of learning in them. The beauty of this book is that it manages to stay ‘external’ whilst focusing inwards. We learn the stories of Nona’s early life and the history and politics of the world around her. It’s all told in great detail but I never once felt as if the information was simply being dumped upon me.

One thing I have always appreciated about Lawrence’s books is the genre that they lie in. A sort of post-apocalyptic fantasy. In Nona’s world, they are living on a planet watched over by a dying sun, where the feeble light grants them only a narrow corridor of living space between the ice. Moreso, they people of Abeth are not even from that world, having arrived on the planet many hundreds of years ago aboard great ships. I love the interplay between the fantasy and science fiction aspects of the book, how the magic seems to be amplified by the ‘shiphearts’ or reactor cores of the ancient space ships.

Nona, herself, is a wonderful character. She’s courageous and frightened, naive and world weary, stubborn and tentative. Basically, in all aspects, she is a young girl coming of age, a young girl thrust into a dark and unpleasant world and forced to come to terms with it. One of my favourite books when I was growing up was ‘Lirael’ by Garth Nix for many of the same reasons that I’ve come to love this book. We have a curious and introverted protagonist carving herself a niche in an environment that is both fascinating and dangerous. A young girl who has managed to utterly unbalance the world around her just by her existence. The way that Nona is written, and her feuds and friendships with those around her, is just amazing. I had flu for the last couple of days and just being able to curl up with this book was perfect escapism.

This is book filled with shadow, poison and politics. It’s a slow, rich, dark odyssey that, even after almost 500 pages, I felt sad to finish. ‘Grey Sister’, the second book, is due to be published next spring and, honestly, I can see myself reading this a good few times between.

So if you like complicated and truthful heroines, blood and bladework with a hefty dose of darkness then this is definitely a book you should have on your radar and your ‘to be read’ list.

Many many thanks to Harper Voyager for a copy in return for an honest review. What a book!

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The Uploaded (Ferrett Steinmetz)

4 stars

In the near future, the elderly have moved online and now live within the computer network. But that doesn’t stop them interfering in the lives of the living, whose sole real purpose now is to maintain the vast servers which support digital Heaven. For one orphan that just isn’t enough – he wants more for himself and his sister than a life slaving away for the dead. It turns out that he’s not the only one who wants to reset the world…

‘The Uploaded’ is a dark book. I’m going to give you that warning for free now.

If said warning doesn’t put you off then please continue…

Amichai is an Upterlife orphan, a teenager whose parents died in one of the horrific genetically modified plagues that are accidentally set loose on the living world every now and then, and ‘ascended’ to a digital existence. Freed from the chains of reality, pain and suffering, they’ve all but forgotten that they left two children behind, spending their days fighting dragons with their pain receptors turned off and sipping piña coladas alongside an artificial sunset.

Amichai is left in the physical world, full of bleak crumbling sky scrapers, questionable protein sludge and glistening servers, whose upkeep is all that he’s considered good for. A trickster at heart and someone who is just terrible at following rules, Amichai lives under the constant burden of the shrive, a ‘save point’ where his memories and experiences are periodically uploaded to the servers and judged by the living dead. Tip too far into ‘criminal’ and he will not be allowed to enter the upterlife, instead dying a horrifying ‘meat death’, his existence erased.

Following the effects of the Bubbler Plague, which annihilated much of the living population, kids like Amichai are a dying breed, both needed and treated with disdain by their ‘ancestors’. Amichai would probably care less if it wasn’t for the existence of his sister, a survivor of the plague, no longer considered fit to wear the badge of the LifeGuard, the proxy officers by which the dead ‘police’ the living. Surviving ‘robbed’ her of the chance to ascend to the servers early, instead forcing her to take on menial work in microchip factories until the end of her natural lifespan.

Life on Earth is hopelessly grim with some foregoing the promise of a digital afterlife altogether, instead choosing ‘meat death’ and the dream of Heaven, trashing the servers that they consider ungodly. Caught between the dead, who do not value his existence and the ‘NeoChristians’ who wish to rob him of his digital future, Amichai is in a bit of a bind. All he knows for sure is that, life cannot continue this way.

Something has to change.

This was a very clever book. It’s been a while since I’ve had a book make me think so much. It’s also a strangely apt book for our current political situation, with the older generations entangling our futures in the chains of their poorly thought out decisions.

It’s definitely more about the concept than the characters. The worldbuilding is astounding, every little detail meticulously thought out for maximum weight and horror. Although the story is very different, I got a real ‘Fallout’ vibe from the book. It’s a bleak horrible world, with people banding together the best they can just to deal with the hideousness of their lives. A dangerous job is no longer considered something worth avoiding, but something that could potentially lead to a quicker upload to the Upterlife.

It’s not a book for the faint hearted, it is relentlessly dark and relentlessly hopeless. I’d also put a big warning on the book for anyone who’s currently having suicidal thoughts. Although the book is, obviously, NOT advocating suicide, the way that characters talk about death and how much they are looking forward to it could be seriously triggering for some readers!

In the afterword, Steinmetz speaks about the fact that he’s been writing this book for years. You can really see it in the story through the attention to detail and the planning of each of the twists and turns. It’s a story that I really enjoyed just letting it take me where it went. I stopped guessing what Amichai would do next, instead accepting that I would probably just be wrong.

In comparison with the world, the characters are a little bit forgettable. I don’t think that’s necessarily a flaw, it’s definitely a story more about deeds than the people behind them, but I found myself forgetting some of the side characters names or losing track of their relevance to the story. Amichai is, however, a great lead. When I was reading, the image in my head was Robert Sheehan as Nathan in ‘Misfits’, irreverent, extraverted, but, under it all, caring and more than a little afraid.

It’s a book that makes you feel a little hollow inside. You’d like to think that those living a digital existence wouldn’t forget the needs of those that they leave behind, but you also know that it’s entirely likely. The dead in this world have the ultimate privilege, they do not fear for anything, not hunger, poverty or pain, for they have already triumphed humanity’s greatest fear, death itself.

So, all in all, a great standalone with exceptional world building. Books like this are why I read science fiction: huge ethical questions, dark not entirely unfamiliar worlds and massive concepts. A great book, and definitely one that will have me searching out Steinmetz’s back catalogue.

(Also, look at this stunning cover…)

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Many thanks to Angry Robot books for a copy in return for an honest review!

The Dragons of Nova (Elise Kova)

5 stars

This is a review for the second book in the ‘Alchemists of Loom’ Trilogy and, as such, spoilers for book one will abound. If you want to learn more about the series, you can find my review for the first book, ‘The Alchemists of Loom’, here.

When I read ‘The Alchemists of Loom’ last year, it was actually the first of Elise’s books that I had ever read. Oh, how times have changed…

I can remember falling in love with the world of Loom, so dark and exciting and original, with its complicated Guild system and video game worthy mechanics. There’s always the worry when you find a book which is so fresh and different, that the second book will not be able to live up to the standards of the first. Thankfully, that is far from the case in ‘The Dragons of Nova’. If anything, Elise has stepped up her game with book two. It is a dream of a sequel.

So, without further ado, let’s get ourselves reacquainted with the world of Loom.

Ari is a chimaera, a Fenthri who has been spliced with multiple dragons parts to gain their magical properties. The events of book one saw our heroine leave Dortam, where she was the infamous thief ‘The White Wraith’, in the company of her apprentice, Florence, and a man who should, by all accounts, be her enemy, the Dragon Cvareh. The only thing keeping them together? The promise of a boon if she gets the errant Dragon to the distant Alchemists Guild.

But the journey was far from simple. Ari finds herself chased by the vicious Riders of the Dragon King, and, perhaps more harrowingly, by her own past. For in a world where chimaeras rot from the inside out under the taint of dragon magic, Ari is not. She is a perfect chimaera, every dragons greatest fear, and she must stop at nothing to avoid that information from spreading. Life is complicated further by her burgeoning emotions for Cvareh, a man she should feel nothing but hate for, and her distaste that her feelings are far from that.

‘The Dragons of Nova’ opens with Ari joining Cvareh on a journey to the Dragon land of Nova, floating islands hanging in the sky above the desolation of Loom. There they are to meet with his sister Petra, in the understanding that it is in both of their interests for the Dragon King to fall. There is, over all, the question of the Philosopher’s Box, the key component in the creation of a perfect Chimaera. How much does Ari know about their construction? And how much of that knowledge about the box, and herself, is she willing to share with her Dragon allies?

Down on Loom, Florence continues her work with the Alchemists Guild, very aware that, once again, she is an outsider in the Guilds and they will always put their lives before her own. Sent on a journey via train to the Harvester’s Guild, Florence becomes intimately acquainted with all facets of monstrosity; the monsters of Loom, and the monsters in humanity. Things are changing on Loom, and our top-hatted Raven-turned-Revolver has a first row seat for the action.

It is very hard to not just keyboard smash when writing this review. SO much happens in this book and my reaction is very much simply the emoji, 😱. Oh, you are truly lulled into a false sense of security by the end of book one. No-one is safe, no-one is secure in ‘TDON’. Our characters are truly trying to navigate violent rapids in a bathtub!

Ari, our protagonist, is mistrust and pride incarnate. Unwilling to accept help, partly because she has been so burned by her part, but also because she’s just the sort of person who would rather walk on hot coals than fall upon the generosity of another. Stubborn, capricious, difficult to love and let herself be loved, I, nevertheless, adore her. Driven by logic, yet coming to appreciate the ‘beauty as its own reward’ culture of Nova, we see so much growth in Ari during the book, both magically and personally. She’s also canonically attracted to more than one gender! Praise be for bisexual or pansexual protagonists in fantasy novels! They’re about as rare as white tigers, and it fills my little bi heart with joy to see myself represented in my favourite genre.

Ari is not the only character to undergo significant development throughout the novel. Florence, who had potentially been my least favourite of the main characters in book one, truly came into her own in ‘TDON’. ‘Tiny girl with a big gun’ is, in my opinion, one of the best tropes to come out of video games, and it’s a joy to see Florence actually be allowed to flourish without Ari being their to ‘save’ her before she gets a chance to save herself. Watching Florence come to a better understanding of herself and her place in the world was honestly one of the most exciting parts of the book. There were a couple of decisions that Florence made during the story that left me so shocked and impressed that I actually laughed out loud.

We see a lot more of Nova in this book, spending more than half of the page time above the cloud line. It’s a real treat to get to see more of the floating islands, with their environment and culture that is so different to that of Loom. Where Loom is built for function, the architecture of Nova is engineered for beauty and form. Cvareh seems a lot more comfortable and confident amongst the culture of his people, and we definitely see a different side to him, that of his sister’s second in command. Privy to his sister’s machinations and quest to return their family to power, there is a very political side to this story, exploring the social hierarchy of Nova and the implications of each and every act within their culture. Politics, I hear you groan, but do not fear, this isn’t a dry story of meetings, but politics that happens in the fighting pit and the gossip houses. The world building is far too interesting to ever let the politics get onerous.

Without spoiling anything, I will say that the events of the story and the ending truly do set the series up for an enormous conclusion. There’s bloody violence, betrayal, assassination and ‘Game of Thrones’-esque political maneuverings. It truly is beautifully and exquisitely satisfying (and painful).

The famous line from Robbie Burns’ ‘To a Mouse’ comes to mind at this moment:

‘the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft a-gley’.

We truly have been set up for suffering. It’s going to be a painful old wait for book three!

Many thanks to Keymaster Press for a copy in return for an honest review.

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The Court of Broken Knives (Anna Smith Spark)

5 stars

“In the richest empire the world has ever known, the city of Sorlost has always stood, eternal and unconquered. But in a city of dreams governed by an imposturous Emperor, decadence has become the true ruler, and has blinded its inhabitants to their vulnerability. The empire is on the verge of invasion – and only one man can see it.

Haunted by dreams of the empire’s demise, Orhan Emmereth has decided to act. On his orders, a company of soldiers cross the desert to reach the city. Once they enter the Palace, they have one mission: kill the Emperor, then all those who remain. Only from ashes can a new empire be built.

The company is a group of good, ordinary soldiers, for whom this is a mission like any other. But the strange boy Marith who walks among them is no ordinary soldier. Marching on Sorlost, Marith thinks he is running away from the past which haunts him. But in the Golden City, his destiny awaits him – beautiful, bloody, and more terrible than anyone could have foreseen.”

Was I expecting, when requesting this on a whim, to find that a book that was one of my favourites of 2017? The answer is no, and I’m so glad that I listened to the feeling in my gut and decided to pick this one up. Because, as much as I love fantasy, sometimes I have a really hard time telling books apart from their blurbs. Large fantasy cities? Mercenaries? Empires? I can name off the top of my head a veritable list of books that contain these components. It’s what an author does with these building blocks that makes them special…

And this is certainly something special.

Sorlost is a City built behind towering walls of Bronze, residents comfortable, protected, despite being surrounded by a crumbling Empire of Dust. Orhan Emmereth is Lord of a once powerful house and sometime confidante of the Emperor. He sees the way the tiles are falling, that they are living in the dying ages of the Empire. Along with other high ranking Lords and his charismatic lover, Darath, he devises a coup, hiring mercenaries from across the desert to infiltrate the Palace and take out the Emperor.

This ragged band of mercenaries are much like any ragged band of mercenaries, apart from the cuckoo in their midst, a boy with the face and education of an aristocrat, the dreams of a broken soldier and the bloodlust of a beast.

In the great Temple of the Lord of Living and Dying, a young High Priestess completes her ritual sacrifices to keep the doors between life and death secure. She has no idea how this revolution could affect her temple and how it will change her life forever.

‘A crown of silver. A throne of gold. A sound of weeping. A scent of blood in the air. King Ruin. King of Dust. King of Shadows.’

This book is 100% for people who came out of ‘Game of Thrones’ more interested in the story of the Targaryens than anything else. It has all the trademarks of a dark fantasy, a brutal antihero, gallows humour, dragons…but there’s something else about this book. It’s just so well written. Seriously, it’s so rich and poetic and gorgeous. It’s a tale told by a poet with the mouth of a sailor and the voice of an angel, and it suits the tone of the book so well.

Take the character of Marith, a boy who looks as if he’s been carved from marble and storm clouds, but with an almost demonic killing frenzy. He’s not your classic anti-hero, not perfect in every crooked way; he has flaws that frequently take him to the edge of death, that make him unpredictable. You mourn for Marith, for the life and love that he could have had, for the addictions that plague him and for the lack of sympathy and help extended to him. I mean ‘cool motive, still murder’ is definitely a phrase that comes to mind and he’s not written in a way where you are expected to forgive him his crimes. I honestly felt at times as if we might be watching the end of the world…

Without spoiling much of the story I really loved how Smith Spark handled the story of the our dark hero’s lover. Through reading her sections you can entirely see how the character knows that falling in love with this person is a terrible idea, how they teeter between staying and leaving and yet, somehow, fall under their spell. So many times when reading fantasy novels, I find myself questioning why someone would stay with their despot lover, but this book definitely explored how people can become someone that they never knew they could be.

One thing that I know can make a lot of people uncomfortable whilst reading grimdark fantasy is an over-reliance on gendered violence. ‘A Court of Broken Knives’ seemed to be refreshingly free of this trope. I mean, every single person in this book is at severe risk of being knifed, but the danger of being decapitated by a dragon was higher than being raped. Thumbs up for that. For everyone who is concerned that it indicates a lack of general gory glory, have no fear, it’s bloody enough to make ‘Game of Thrones’ look a kids bed time story, it just decides to make everyone at risk of a gory death, not just women.

Also, the relationship between Orhan and Darath was so unbelievably cute. Established m/m romance in grimdark, that is treated respectfully? I did feel sad that it was a world where, whilst m/m relationships weren’t really frowned upon, a marriage between two high ranking Lords was considered impossible. It did mean that Orhan had to be ostensibly in a loveless sham marriage where neither he nor his wife was happy. But, to be honest, I don’t think there was a happy marriage in the entire book, so it wasn’t entirely out of pattern. The story is young and dark, who knows what is going to happen.

As mentioned earlier in the review, this book is one of my absolute favourites of the year so far. It is just so irreverent but evocative, poetic but also blunt and gory, filled with gorgeous prose and enough cursing to make a soldier blush. I can’t believe I’m going to have to wait ‘who-knows-how-long’ for book two. I can’t wait that long to see how my favourite royally makes a mess of everything.

‘A Court of Broken Knives’ it out on the 29th of June (tomorrow) from the wonderful people over at Harper Voyager, and I know there are some beautiful signed copies available at Goldsboro Books *wink wink*.

Many many thanks to Harper Voyager Books for a copy in return for an honest review. It was a pleasure to read.

A Song for the Story? ‘Under Your Skin’ by Aesthetic Perfection really put me in mind of Marith’s character at multiple points in the book!

 

Waking Gods (Sylvain Neuvel)

1 star

An unknown vessel, not of this world, materializes in London. A colossal figure towering over the city, it makes no move. Is this a peaceful first contact or the prelude to an invasion?

Every child has nightmares. But the only thing scarier than little Eva Reyes’ dreams – apocalyptic visions of death and destruction – is the habit they have of coming true…

Scientist Dr Rose Franklin has no memory of the last few years. The strangers she works with say she died, and was brought back to life. The question is not just how … but why?

Kara Resnik and Vincent Couture fell in love during war, and have found peace since. They are the thin line of defence against what is coming. But they do not know they have been living a lie.

And a man who claims to have the answers has his own agenda. There are things he cannot say – and others he won’t.”

Ok, the lesson I’m going to take out of this is that if I’m not all that fond of book one the likelihood is that I’m not going to like book two at all…

All my least favourite parts of ‘Sleeping Giants’ took a front seat in the sequel. It’s a book about giant robots and the annihilation of the human race, I couldn’t honestly care less about a questionable love story between two characters that I only mildly had any feelings for.

It’s a book that thinks that it’s more intelligent than it actually is…there were a couple of points during the DNA/sepsis exposition that I was sitting there as a medic thinking ‘you just described 1+1=2 in the most roundabout and smug way possible’. Also, choosing the BRCA2 mutation as one of the genetic markers for imperfect humanity was pretty insensitive, maybe they should have made up some gene mutations instead of choosing ones that people die from every year.  At about 10% I’d pretty much reached the decision that this just wasn’t a book for me, but I kept reading, ever hopeful and marginally curious about what would happen. That was a poor decision on my part.

There’s a reason that I don’t choose to read film scripts, because the lack of internal thought process and visuals is boring as hell to a reader. Maybe it was more interesting to listen to as an audiobook but I’m not sure that I can be bothered to try. I know that I mentioned World War Z in the first review as well, but, honestly, that’s proof that I do quite enjoy the interview format if it’s done well. The transcribed audio logs in ‘Waking Gods’ were embarrassing to read, it put me in mind of old manuscripts that I wrote when I was eleven, stilted dialogue and too many ‘noooooooos’ for me to be able to take it seriously. Let’s be honest, an audio recording is not going to hear what you’re saying if you’re screaming, it’s just going to come out as a lot of ear bleeding static.

This had a great premise, giant robots is one of the quickest ways to get me on side when I’m trying to choose media…but it was just so dull, and the fact that I could completely skim huge chunks of text and still know what was going on didn’t exactly made me want to read it in any more detail. Sometimes books and readers just don’t click and I think that might have been the case here. Maybe the audiobook would have been better? I know that I would have enjoyed a film version a lot more? All I know is that I went in wanting giant robots and got a love story…eugh.

Thank you to Penguin Books and Netgalley for a copy in return for an honest review.

 

 

Godblind (Anna Stephens)

4.5 Stars

“The Mireces worship the bloodthirsty Red Gods. Exiled from Rilpor a thousand years ago, and left to suffer a harsh life in the cold mountains, a new Mireces king now plots an invasion of Rilpor’s thriving cities and fertile earth.

Dom Templeson is a Watcher, a civilian warrior guarding Rilpor’s border. He is also the most powerful seer in generations, plagued with visions and prophecies. His people are devoted followers of the god of light and life, but Dom harbors deep secrets, which threaten to be exposed when Rillirin, an escaped Mireces slave, stumbles broken and bleeding into his village.

Meanwhile, more and more of Rilpor’s most powerful figures are turning to the dark rituals and bloody sacrifices of the Red Gods, including the prince, who plots to wrest the throne from his dying father in the heart of the kingdom. Can Rillirin, with her inside knowledge of the Red Gods and her shocking ties to the Mireces King, help Rilpor win the coming war?”

I’d been itching for a good bit of dark fantasy for a while, so when I weirdly ended up with two copies of ‘Godblind’ I had a feeling that it was just ‘meant to be’. I actually took a good two weeks reading this, not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because I wanted to savour it.

The Rilporins have been favoured by the Gods of the Light, the Dancer and her son, the Fox God. Peace has reigned for many years, with their enemies, the Mireces, and their Red Gods exiled to the inhospitable mountains, held at bay by the powers of the Light. But now the Mireces are on the move, hoping to tear the veil that keeps their Red Gods from the mortal world. The most assured way to break that veil? To spill truly epic amounts of blood in the name of their Gods…

I should probably point out at this moment that this book does fall into the grimdark category. If you haven’t read grimdark in the past, that basically means dark fantasy with characters that are more often than not grey morality or outright amoral. Plots are often ruthless and brutal with much death, and kind of make ‘Game of Thrones’ look positively lighthearted. If that isn’t your thing then you probably won’t enjoy this book very much. As with much grimdark there are quite a few content warnings that I’d like to put out there: violence, torture, religious sacrifice, self injury, internalized homophobia, rape and mutilation. They’re not one time warnings either, they occur multiple times throughout the book, and I don’t say that as criticism, I say that as fact. If you like your fantasy a little more forgiving then this book probably isn’t for you.

If, you know, that does sound like your kind of thing, then please continue.

One of my favourite things about this book was the characters, especially those of Rillirin,Tara, Dom and Crys…though, to be honest, I found all of them interesting in their own way. Rillirin is one of the first characters that we meet, a bed slave of the Mireces King and, honestly, one of my favourite female characters that I’ve read in a while. Seeing her flee from the Mireces, become a stronger person and begin to heal from her trauma, I found it was really great to meet a female character who didn’t have to fit the cookie cutter mold of ‘strong female protagonist’. Rillirin is strong,  but she’s also learning and growing and healing and I can’t wait to see where her story continues in later books.

“Then fuck you all, she thought, I’ll save myself.”

The quotation above is a perfect example of all the great women in this book, from Tara, the excellent Rilporin officer who consistently has to deal with men casting aspersions about how she climbed the ranks, to Gilda, an older woman and priestess who spits in the face of those who come to burn her town, and Lanta, a priestess of the Red Gods who is attempting to seize power for herself from the Mireces Kings. It was really nice to read some grimdark written by a woman, in that the female characters were much more than emotional cannon fodder.

The character of Dom is a fascinating one. I can see a couple of different directions in which his story might go. Out of all the characters in this book, his situation is probably the most tenuous. As a seer he is truly at the mercy of the Gods, who can enter his mind and send him messages and images at any time. Struggling and suffering under a compact that he made in past and trying to desperately avoid losing all sense of reality, I honestly worry for Dom and his tentative relationship with Rillirin. I fear that they might both be harmed by what is to come.

The final character I want to talk about is Crys, who I both adored and had a little bit of trouble with. I should probably preface this by saying that I’m bisexual and that, from what we see in text, Crys also seems to be bisexual. Which is awesome, I love representation and it’s pretty rare to see it in grimdark fantasy, let’s be honest. The problem I have with Crys is the way that him coming to terms with that bisexuality is written. We have a male character who flirts with Crys, and, initially Crys’ response is that he is abhorred, which, well, internalised homophobia is totally a thing, and his response IS explicitly called out on page (which I liked). However, I don’t really feel that we see enough of his mindset changing, of him thinking about his attraction before, boom, it’s the night before a battle and said male character is asking if he wants to kiss him and, suddenly, insta-bi! I also struggled with that scene because it seems as if the other male character is coercing Crys with the whole ‘we might die in battle tomorrow’ and, I totally think it isn’t intentional, but it does play a little into the ‘predatory gay’ trope. So, I’m conflicted, ‘yay’ for a canon mlm relationship in grimdark fantasy but ‘not-so-yay’ for there being some problems in how it was written. I’m hoping that by book two maybe some of those problems might have been ironed out.

Like many people, I went into this book not knowing whether it was a standalone or part of a series. I worked out about half way through that it probably wasn’t a standalone, and I’m actually pretty glad. I think there’s a lot more of this world to see and a lot more story to be told. I’m excited because I’ve sort of been tip-toeing around grimdark recently and I’m glad to see a new voice, especially a female voice! I’m also still kind of shocked that this was a debut, it wasn’t clunky in the slightest and held its own with all the giants of the genre.

So, if you’re looking for something dark and bloody to satisfy your ‘Game of Thrones’ cravings, I suggest picking this up when it comes out a couple of days from now on the 15th of June. The hardback cover looks gorgeous… I’ve also seen some variants with edges sprayed black out there, which, let’s be honest, are absolutely dreamy.

Many many thanks to Harper Voyager for an advanced copy in return for an honest review!!

A song that describes this book to me: The Song of the Sword Dancer (The Witcher: The Wild Hunt OST)

 

 

 

Shattered Minds (Laura Lam)

4.5 stars

“Ex-neuroscientist Carina struggles with a drug problem, her conscience, and urges to kill.

She satisfies her cravings in dreams, fuelled by the addictive drug ‘Zeal’. Now she’s heading for self-destruction until she has a vision of a dead girl.

Sudice Inc. damaged Carina when she worked on their sinister brain-mapping project, causing her violent compulsions. And this girl was a similar experiment. When Carina realizes the vision was planted by her old colleague Mark, desperate for help to expose the company, she knows hes probably dead.

Her only hope is to unmask her nemesis or shes next.

To unlock the secrets Mark hid in her mind, shell need a group of specialist hackers. Dax is one of them, a doctor who can help Carina fight her addictions. If she holds on to her humanity, they might even have a future together. But first she must destroy her adversary before it changes us and our society, forever.”

 

Set in the same dark future as ‘False Hearts’, the newest offering from Laura Lam is a very different book. Whereas ‘False Hearts’ was a book of neon warmth and arching redwoods, ‘Shattered Minds’ is a story filled with clinical chrome and the buzz of electronic instruments. It is a harder, colder book, less forgiving, with characters that take a little bit longer to love. But love them you definitely do.

Centring around a hacking group that is attempting to bring down a large, corrupt corporation that seems to own most of the West Coast (now Pacifica), ‘Shattered Minds’ has a really classic cyberpunk feel that put me in mind of William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’. Members of society now have complex neural implants to allow functions such as the straight downloading of information from external systems. Such neural implants can also allow hacking via VR, a more natural interface than hard code, though also bringing the added risk of cybersecurity systems being able to ‘fry’ user implants remotely, and, with them, the user’s own mind.

Carina, our protagonist, an ex neuroprogrammer, takes some time to warm to. She’s blunt and difficult, though once you realise how much of that ‘difficulty’ is due to self loathing and trauma she’s much easier to understand. She’s a character who has been betrayed by everyone she ever thought to trust, from her father to Roz, the scientist who was supposed to take her pain away. ‘Taking the pain’ away in Carina’s case turned out to be much more literal, with Roz re-engineering Carina’s brain in a way that made it so she rarely felt strong emotion. It was only when that programming began to unravel and sudden strong compulsions to commit violence and murder began to develop that Carina realised what had happened to her. Terrified of hurting people, she retreats into the world of zeal, a drug that allows users to manipulate their own dreamscapes. Her body falling apart at the seams, Carina feels that at least she is less of a threat to those around her…it’s heartbreaking on so many levels. The story raises the question on multiple occasions of just how much of Carina’s personality is her own and how much is what the brain engineering made her. Even if they were to reverse that engineering, how much of what Carina is was caused by nature and how much is what was done to her?

Dax, an important secondary POV character and love interest, was my favourite. I try not to play favourites, but I just couldn’t help it. He is, in Laura’s own words, the ‘cinnamon roll’, and I entirely agree with that assessment. The medic to our hacking collective, Dax originally was a surgeon specialising in body modification, common in the state of Pacifica. Always excellent at including LGBTQA+ characters and respectful rep in her stories, Laura’s decision to write Dax as a trans man is such a positive thing. Dax’s identity is not a plot point, it’s not a twist, it simply is. More books need to include LGBTQA+ characters in a way that makes identity incidental and not somehow part of the plot. LGBTQA+ people exist and their story doesn’t have to end there, let them have stories beyond that! Let them be heroes and villains and hackers and doctors, let them be whatever your stories need them to be, like any other character.

Also, you know, let them be cinnamon roll Native Doctors, because I love Dax so much.

Before I go on an excessively long ramble about how much I love one character, I’ll direct you towards our villain, the ruthlessly driven Roz. It’s been a while since I’ve disliked a villain quite as much as Roz. Cold, hard, indifferent to the feelings of others, she is probably my entire opposite, but I don’t think it’s even that which got under my skin so much. The most horrifying thing about Roz is how she doesn’t view consent as something sacred. She doesn’t care what you want, you’re simply her experiment and she has no qualms whatsoever in knocking you out and making fundamental changes to your brain. Genuinely, she gives me the shudders.

The half a star came off because I wasn’t able to gel with the story quite as much as I would have liked. It has a complicated structure, moving backwards and forwards in time in a way that makes a lot of sense for the plot and for Carina’s character, but sometimes left me a little confused. I’ve also mentioned before that Carina is maybe a little more difficult to love than your classic protagonist, but I think, once again, that that’s a personal thing and I know from reading other reviews that other people have absolutely adored her.

One of my favourite parts of the world that Laura builds for her Pacifica novels is the culture and the cities. There are all these subtle hints at other stories happening behind the scenes, like the fan who tried to clone his idols and led to a fashion for covering all fingerprints and shaving off all hair, so that no DNA was accidentally left behind. There’s also some overlap with ‘False Hearts’, in mentions of the cult that the protagonists were raised in, characters reappearing and further discussion of the some of the repercussions of events in the other book. Whilst you don’t have to have read ‘False Hearts’ to enjoy this, I’d honest recommend picking up both books, because ‘False Hearts’ is one of my favourite books of all time, and the world that Laura has created is a joy to read.

So, if you’re looking for a cerebral thriller (no pun intended), with diverse characters, genuine threat and much much neurohacking, this is definitely the book for you.

‘Shattered Minds’ is out on the 15th of June, and Laura has a pre order promotion going at the moment with 10K of extra Pacifica fiction available in return for proof of pre-order!

Many thanks to Tor Books for a copy in return for an honest review!