‘Ex-Heroes’ by Peter Clines


There really isn’t that much to say about Peter Clines’ Ex-Heroes other than that it’s full of zombies, superheroes and fun. (Think X-Men meets The Walking Dead.)

The Mighty Dragon. Stealth. Gorgon. Regenerator. Cerberus. Zzzap.

They were superheroes fighting to make Los Angeles a better place.

Then the plague of living death spread. Billions died, civilization fell, and the City of Angels was left a desolate zombie wasteland.

But the ex-humans aren’t the only threats the heroes face. Another group is amassing power . . . led by an enemy with the most terrifying ability of all.

In a post-apocalyptic future where the majority of the world’s population are zombies – or ‘ex-humans’ – a small community struggle to survive in their makeshift ‘town’ (a converted film studio in Los Angeles). Beset from all sides by millions of ‘exes’ and the remnants of a mean LA gang called the SS, the survivors are almost wholly dependent on the help of a group of superheroes.

That’s right. Superheroes.

'Ex-Heroes' by Peter ClinesSt. George can fly and breathe fire. Gorgon can drain the strength from his opponents just by making eye contact. Stealth is a super-fast ninja who can blend with her surroundings. Cerberus has a kick-ass metal suit with cannons loaded onto the arms, and Regenerator can heal both himself and others with a touch. (They’re basically the Avengers, but somehow cooler.) The heroes have to work together to protect the survivors against a new threat: someone is co-ordinating the ex-humans, giving minds to the mindless and making them more dangerous than ever. And this mysterious someone has a personal grudge against one of our heroes . . .

I honestly can’t remember the last time I had this much fun reading a book. The heroes are all hugely likeable – my personal favourites were Gorgon, Zzzap, and of course St. George – and there’s a great blend of excitement, humour, horror and pathos. The action scenes are frequent and imaginative, and the author manages to strike a perfect balance between ridiculous and brilliant when it comes to the exaggerated powers of the superheroes. Just awesome.

This review was originally posted on halfstrungharp.com on 19th April 2014.lauramhughes-sig

‘Emperor of Thorns’ by Mark Lawrence


We’ve followed him for ten years of his life. We’ve lived his journey from the storm-struck thorns to the throne of Renar, and still Jorg Ancrath can surprise us – in good ways as well as bad.

Follow me, and I will break your heart.

Winner of the 2014 David Gemmell Legend Award for Best Fantasy Novel, Emperor of Thorns concludes the groundbreaking Broken Empire trilogy by Mark Lawrence. Jorg is now aged twenty; the Hundred have been summoned to a Congress to decide the matter of the next emperor. The throne has sat empty for over a hundred years, but Jorg plans to remedy that with his secret knowledge, stalwart companions and unique brand of tact and diplomacy.

“I’ve been to Congression before, Makin. I know what games they play there. This year we’re going to play a new game. Mine.”

In addition to the upcoming Congress, an even bigger challenge awaits. The Broken Empire must prepare itself for the biggest threat to humanity since the Day of a Thousand Suns: the invasion of the Dead King’s armies.

Emperor of Thorns follows the familiar ‘Lawrence’ structure. Flashbacks interposed with present-day events create suspense, builds tension and reveals key information at critical moments. However, there is also a new addition: a third-person account of the necromancer Chella (a character who was central to the storyline of the previous book but was only ever seen from Jorg’s point of view). Though I wasn’t particularly keen on this new POV, it certainly makes for some interesting insights into Chella’s character, and gives Emperor of Thorns (Broken Empire #3) by Mark Lawrenceus inside information about the Dead King and his legions.

Some of the most entertaining parts of the Broken Empire trilogy are the tales of the road, and we are treated to a fair few of them here. Typically grim yet delightful, these anecdotes about Jorg’s younger days among his road brothers reveal much more about Jorg’s tragic, twisted childhood. Secrets that have so far been only partially revealed or hinted at – such as Jorg’s burning hatred for the clergy – are now fully unveiled in harsh and uncomfortable ways. Lawrence continues to display a penchant for putting the ‘dark’ in ‘dark fantasy’, but somehow the horror and violence is never simply gratuitous. Instead, it’s used to deliberately manipulate the reader’s emotional response and force us to acknowledge that his protagonist has been brutally moulded and pushed to similar violence by these horrific external events, rather than just because of his “dena”.

On a slightly less grim note, one of my favourite aspects of this book is its scale. Lawrence shows us more of the Broken Empire than ever before. King of Thorns introduced us to the rocky highlands of Renar, Maladon in the icy north, and the fetid swamps of Cantanlona, and Emperor of Thorns takes us even further. From the lifeless wastelands of the Iberico to the desert city of the mathmagicians, from the silent horrors of flooded ghost towns to the affluent city of Vyene, Lawrence spoils the reader with haunting yet spectacular imagery.

Lawrence’s third novel is a joy to read, filled as it is with amusingly casual turns of phrase, poetic internal monologue, and brilliantly integrated reminders of past events – and hints about things to come. The  author also delights in leaving delicious clues for the reader regarding the true nature of Jorg’s broken world (my personal favourites being the hilariously sanctified “guardian” of the Gilden Gate, the martial teachings of “Lee”, and of course the ironic original function of the empire throne itself).

Emperor of Thorns is a spectacular finish to a brilliantly original fantasy series. Does Jorg find redemption? You’ll have to read it and find out. Think you’ve guessed how it’s all going to end? I can guarantee that you haven’t.

‘King of Thorns’ by Mark Lawrence


Anyone will tell you that the middle part of any trilogy is usually the weakest; that it functions mostly as filler between books one and three, a tiresome interlude between the start and the big finish. Not so with King of Thorns: it’s fast-paced, tense, action-packed, and has several thrilling plotlines that make for a more exhilarating read than even the trilogy’s first instalment, Prince of Thorns. No wonder it was shortlisted for the 2013 David Gemmell Legend Award (losing out to Brent Weeks’ equally worthy The Blinding Knife).

“I made mock of the dying at Mabberton and now their ghosts watched me burn. Take the pain, I said, and I will be a good man. Or if not that, a better man. We all become weasels with enough hurt on us. But I think a small part of it was more than that. A small part was that terrible two-edged sword called experience, cutting away at the cruel child I was, carving out whatever man might be yet to come. I promised a better one. Though I have been known to lie.”

As you probably know, King of Thorns is the second instalment in Mark Lawrence’s post-apocalyptic, dark fantasy (aka. ‘grimdark’) Broken Empire trilogy. Picking up the story of Jorg Ancrath four years after the events of Prince, Jorg is now King of Renar, and must King of Thorns by Mark Lawrencedefend his position against popular Prince Orrin of Arrow. However, due to earlier events Jorg has had certain memories removed from his mind (convenient, I know). These memories are revealed through a series of flashbacks in a style similar to that of the novel’s predecessor, but much more cleverly and intricately crafted. The ‘present day’ plot of the novel is centred on Jorg’s plan to defeat the Prince of Arrow; a plan which is progressively revealed throughout the story and leads us with ever-increasing momentum towards the adrenaline-filled finish.

Prince Orrin is everything you’d expect to see in a traditional epic fantasy. He is handsome and moral, gracious and brave, and above all he wishes to secure peace and prosperity for the empire . . . and we spend the entire novel rooting against him (well, I did). I really like the fact that the author has managed to deconstruct traditional fantasy archetypes to such an extent that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ become merely a matter of perspective. Orrin is the golden fairy-tale prince, and yet somehow our Little Jorgy – severely flawed and of dubious morality – manages to emerge the hero.

I’ll be honest: the first time I read this book I had two major issues with it, the first being the flashbacks. There are four (I think) different time frames/points of view, and I initially felt these to be chaotic, distracting and occasionally repetitive. I felt that they detracted from my enjoyment of the main story by disrupting my sense of time and place. I got that they were being strategically placed to build towards the big reveal, but felt that there was too much back and forth within the narrative.

Now, having read this book a second time, I find it difficult to reconcile my initial response with what I’ve just read. For a start, I realise that the sense of dislocation is deliberately evoked in order to create an empathic link with Jorg: we feel but a tiny fraction of what it must be like to be suddenly hit by a memory you have no recollection of having lived through. Secondly, the ordering of the flashbacks is anything but chaotic. The narrative is artfully constructed so as to reveal crucial plot points at strategic moments, as well as to both shock and tease the reader; and what I had at first thought to be random revealed itself instead to be a complex web of memories cunningly fashioned by the author in a way to make one gape with admiration.

King of Thorns (Jason Chan art) by Mark Lawrence

Artwork by Jason Chan

My other initial problem with the book was that I didn’t enjoy the ‘Katherine’ chapters. I found the saga of her diary entries to be an unnecessarily dull counterpoint to Jorg’s narrative, and found myself wishing her journal pages had never been found. Of course, reading the novel again made me realise why her chapters are a vital part of the on-going Sageous plotline, and her sad words resonated far more poignantly because I was aware of how it was going to end. I’m more willing now to accept Katherine as a necessary part of Jorg’s story.

I’ll admit: there were parts of this book that I found difficult to read, and which I know have caused outrage amongst readers elsewhere on the web. A scene which I’ll refer to only as the Justice of King Olidan actually hurt me to read, even more so the second time because I knew it was coming and was powerless to stop it; and yet, I found myself elated that Jorg was able to re-live the memory and re-evaluate the lessons he thought he’d learned from the experience. The fact that the reader is made to experience such feelings is a testament to the author’s ability to feel, and to write in a way that makes others feel too.

On a similar note, King of Thorns feels a lot more personal than Prince, perhaps because scenes such as these allow the reader to connect more with the protagonist: Jorg has stabilised a little and matured emotionally, and we live through this transformation as much as he does. There is also a lot more focus on his internal struggle with the way he has lived so far – here’s a powerful example:

“I told Coddin that stubbornness led me to climb, and perhaps it did, but there’s more to it. Mountains have no memory, no judgments to offer. There’s a purity in the struggle to reach a peak. You leave your world behind and take only what you need. For a creature like me there is nothing closer to redemption.”

I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking that this is some kind of sappy coming-of-age drama, by the way. I mentioned in my review of Prince of Thorns how the first book came under fire by those who were outraged by the immoral actions of the central character within the first few pages; if those same people have decided to read King of Thorns I’m guessing they’re currently rolling in their graves after choking on their own moral indignation. There’s some dark stuff here, darker than the first book, with enough creepy situations and haunting images to give you nightmares for a month. There’s action – lots of action! – and the flashbacks are written in the present tense, which really draws you into the moment and uses the “elephant of surprise” to keep you on the edge of your seat, right up to the eventual reveal of the final heart-breaking secret.

I’m hopeful that the final instalment in the trilogy, Emperor of Thorns, will prove to be as good as this one. What with the subtle transformation of Jorg’s character, the driving themes of memory and destiny, and the intriguing foreshadowing of the Dead King, I can’t wait to read it. According to Jorg,

“A time of terror comes. A dark time. The graves continue to open and the Dead King prepares to sail. But the world holds worse things than dead men. A dark time comes.

My time.

If it offends you.

Stop me.”

I don’t think I’ve ever shivered with anticipation before; but after reading those closing lines, how could I not?

This review was originally published on halfstrungharp.com on 23rd September 2013.lauramhughes-sig

‘The Violent Century’ by Lavie Tidhar


A tale of conflict, espionage and superheroes that takes place during some of the major global conflicts of the 1900s, The Violent Century is unlike anything I’ve ever read (except, The Violent Century by Lavie Tidharperhaps, the Milkweed Triptych by Ian Tregillis). Often compared to Alan Moore’s Watchmen; suffused with the moody intrigue of a John le Carre novel; and written in a postmodern style similar to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Lavie Tidhar’s standalone novel explores the hypothetical role of superheroes in historical conflicts, focusing particularly on World War II.

For starters, the author uses a series of interrogation scenes to frame the main narrative, during which a central character gradually reveals the sequence of events that brought him to that point. Tidhar’s superheroes, or ‘Ubermenschen’, are an exaggerated (and deliberately stereotyped) representation of the role and ideologies of their respective countries in each of the conflicts. From Britain, there’s Oblivion and Fogg; shadowy and furtive and seemingly innocuous. From the USA emerge Tigerman and Green Gunman, ludicrously costumed and arrogant. From the USSR, there’s the Red Sickle; from Transylvania, Bloodsucker and Drakul and . . . you get the picture. These characters, along with the author’s masterful use of setting and atmosphere, really create a distinctive feel of each historical era, from post-war Berlin to the Eastern Front, the Afghan desert to WWII Transylvania.

The Violent Century is almost certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s easy to see why many readers have been put off by the style, and disoriented by the disruptive time jumps. For me, however, the concept – and the incredible atmosphere – kept me immersed, and after a short while the unusual narrative style reads just as fluently as anything else. My only criticism of the story is that a lack of emotion connection with Fogg meant that the final payoff wasn’t quite as emotionally charged as it was probably intended to be.

Overall, though, the good stuff far outweighs the bad. Tidhar’s tone is enjoyably cynical yet wry; his underlying message – that the world would have turned out in exactly the same way even if superheroes *did* exist – is depressing, yet oddly reassuring; and the finale is sad, cathartic and incredibly hopeful. All in all, The Violent Century is a memorable story that will stay with me for quite some time. Definitely worth a read.

This review originally appeared on halfstrungharp.com on 5 May 2014.lauramhughes-sig

‘Rivers of London’ by Ben Aaronovitch


As a born-and-bred northerner, I’ll admit I had doubts about how much I’d enjoy a book based entirely around the life and culture of London . . . but against all my natural instincts I found myself completely charmed by Rivers of London.

Rivers of London (Peter Grant #1) by Ben AaronovitchActually, perhaps ‘charmed’ isn’t quite the right word; rather, being whisked along on this peculiar journey down unfamiliar streets left me blinking and befuddled – in a good way! Rivers of London is refreshing in that it never pretends to be anything other than it is: a shamelessly daft, irreverent and slightly ridiculous story told through a funny and engaging first person narrator.

Peter Grant is a regular dogsbody in the London Met until, in the face of all probability, he’s informed that “yer a wizard, ‘arry!” and is roped into joining the hidden arm of the police that deals with cases of supernatural lawbreaking. Grant’s first case as a ‘real’ copper is to find out who – or what – is snatching bodies and forcing innocent people to do unspeakable things. Readers should consider themselves warned: Aaronovitch doesn’t shy away from violence and swearing!

Rivers of London’s plot is enjoyably bizarre and very entertaining. There are moments of disjointedness where it feels as though the story may be losing its thread, but it always picks up again and for the most part skips along smoothly. The novel’s irreverent tone and down-to-earth characters go a long way towards combating stereotypes, as does the author’s self-awareness of the clichés he is drawing on (cue sarcastic comments and humorous Harry Potter references).

To his credit, though, Aaronovitch mostly steers clear of clichés and tends instead to go for the unexpected. Ghosts? Yep, they’re real, only they’re a lot chattier and, well, cockney-er than you’ve ever seen them before. The goddess of the river Thames? She’s a Nigerian woman with a huge family and a fondness for custard creams. And the villain? Well, I won’t say anything about them, except that I never saw THAT coming. The way the protagonist just goes along with it all, resigning himself to his fate with a sigh, actually makes the magical aspects feel normal and totally credible: every time something new happens, be it a nest of vampires or a time-travelling ghost, instead of rolling their eyes the reader just shrugs and thinks, ‘oh, okay, cool.’

Rivers of London is a LOT of fun (did I mention that already?). I get the impression that I’ve barely scratched the surface of Aaronovitch’s crazy world, and I look forward to the day the stars align and I finally have time to read book two, Moon Over Soho.lauramhughes-sig

‘The Copper Promise’ by Jen Williams


The Copper Promise is a classic fantasy romp; a sword and sorcery tale of epic quests, fallen heroes, plucky sellswords and fearsome dragons.

The Copper Promise by Jen Williams (UK Cover)After unwittingly unleashing an ancient horror from a buried citadel (oops!), three unlikely heroes – noble Lord Frith (whose family were murdered and who himself was tortured after being overthrown by rivals); Sir Sebastien (an exiled knight with a troubled soul); and Wydrin (a sassy mercenary also known as the Copper Cat) – must seek out long-lost magic in order to atone for their bloody daft mistake and save the world.

Jen Williams’ story is a lot of fun. The Copper Promise is full of action and magic and just the right amount of grit and gore . . . and it’s entertaining enough to make you overlook certain instances of deus ex machina (need to travel somewhere in a hurry? Take these magical flying griffins!). Although several threads of the story are so contrived as to be reminiscent of quests in a Dungeons & Dragons game, the flighty pace and likeable characters (particularly Wydrin) make the reader more than happy to turn a blind eye.

The pacing of The Copper Promise does suffer a little bit from its uneven structure. As I understand it, the story was originally written as a series of four novellas; this version of the book is similarly split into four distinct sections. While this means for quite fast pacing and lots of exciting moments and mini-climaxes, it does make the final events of the book seem a little anti-climactic. (The wild chase through the skies, though very exciting, felt a little rushed.)

Most of all, though, it’s nice to read the first book in a series that can actually be read as a standalone. Far too many fantasy authors recently have cut me up with sudden and dramatic cliffhangers at the end of their books (I’m looking at you, Brian McClellan). The Copper Promise is refreshing in that it’s self-contained, and ends with a sense of resolution while at the same time inviting (rather than demanding) a sequel.

I’m currently reading Jen Williams’ latest novel, The Ninth Rain, and am massively impressed by the increase in quality. While I did enjoy The Copper Promise, I think I’d find it hard to return to the Copper Cat and co. now that I’ve sampled the Winnowing Flame trilogy… but who knows? The Iron Ghost has been sitting on my shelf for two years now, and perhaps its patience will be rewarded one day. Either way, a review of The Ninth Rain (released on 23 February 2017) will be appearing on this site very soon!lauramhughes-sig

Review originally published on halfstrungharp.com on 15 August 2014.

‘A Darker Shade of Magic’ by V.E. Schwab


I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit that I bought this book solely because of its cover.

Actually, no. I’m not embarrassed at all. That’s what covers are for, isn’t it? And this is one seriously gorgeous cover! I mean, look at that bad boy:A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Luckily, there’s an equally gorgeous story lying behind it. A Darker Shade of Magic is filled with beautiful settings and bloody magic, cross-dressing thieves and nefarious villains, magical utopias and fearsome dystopias – not to mention fun adventures and several heroic attempts to save the world. Or I should say worlds, of which there are four. Each of the four worlds – closed off from one another after terrible past events – are completely different, yet all have a single common point: the city of London. Each of these Londons (not all of which are actually called London) is vastly different from the others: Red London is a magic-infused paradise, Grey London is akin to early 19th century England, White London is dangerous and filled with half-starved cannibals, and the less said about Black London the better.

A Darker Shade of Magic focuses on two incredibly likeable characters: Kell, a powerful magician and adopted member of the Red London royal family; and Lila, a dirt-poor thief from Grey London who dreams of adventure. An unlikely pairing, but one which works together well, travelling between Londons to thwart the villains trying to bring doom upon both their worlds.

The relationship between Kell and Lila is an integral part of the story; much of the novel’s humour arises from their interactions and the dry way in which they antagonise one another. However, their relationship is not the sole focus of the story – much to the author’s credit. A romance storyline between the two could easily have taken centre stage, and yet this particular element is remarkably downplayed and subtle. Instead, A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwabit’s more about how Kell and Lila gradually come to trust one another, and how their initially antagonistic relationship develops into something stronger through their mutual desire to put things right and save the world(s). There’s just a hint or two that there may be more than just friendship on the horizon, which is both realistic and lovely at the same time.

No, the true focus of the novel is on its plot rather than its characters; and while I would have liked to have been given more insight into each of the characters as individuals, the author nonetheless does a credible job of developing them both whilst remaining focused on the events. The plot itself is relatively straightforward, but with enough twists and turns thrown in to keep the reader guessing; and the writing is flowing and engaging. In fact, certain parts of the prose – not to mention the descriptions of setting, as well as the somewhat nebulous nature of the magic itself – put me in mind of Susanna Clarke’s excellent novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Schwab’s novel is not as accomplished nor as ambitious as Clarke’s behemoth – indeed, A Darker Shade of Magic’s strength is in its fast pacing and tightly-focused plot – but its spirit is much the same, as is its focus on magic’s darker, subtler side, and its potential to bring out both the best and the worst in people.

While many aspects of the novel are somewhat dark and sinister (as the title suggests), the story itself is a whole lot of fun. The strong pacing and short chapters – as well as the likeable characters and compelling plot – conspired to make me finish the book in just two sittings, and I’m really happy to have discovered a new author as a result of my shallow over-appreciation of fine cover art. Even better, I’m confident that the sequels will prove to be just as good (if not better!) than book one . . . and that they’ll look equally pretty on my shelf.lauramhughes-sig

‘Assassin’s Apprentice’ by Robin Hobb


My memories of Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy are muzzy. Having read it a solid decade ago the only thing I could remember about the trilogy was that it was Quite Good. Clearly, I never had the urge to revisit the characters or even to read any of Hobb’s other books. After re-reading Assassin’s Apprentice, however, I’d like to officially revise my initial opinion.

But first: an introduction!

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin HobbThe Farseer trilogy is so-called after the royal family of the Six Duchies. The Farseers have ruled for hundreds of years, and are unique amongst the kingdom in that they possess the Skill – a hereditary ability that allows them to initiate mind contact with (and potentially manipulate) other people. Used (for the most part) to defend the kingdom against pirate raiders, the Skill is feared and respected as the sole province of royalty.

But the Skill is only one side of a coin. On the other side – the darker side – is the Wit, aka. the ability to communicate with animals. The Wit is considered to be a perversion of the Skill; those who wield it are labelled ‘tainted’ and reviled. Anyone with the Wit foolish enough to make it publicly known is promptly lynched by neighbours who believe them no better than the animals with which they share their thoughts and feelings.

Six-year-old Fitz turns out to have both the Wit and the Skill. But as a bastard of the royal line, many consider him unworthy of both. Furthermore, he must keep his Wit hidden, or risk disgracing the house of Farseer – and seeing himself horrifically punished. Assassin’s Apprentice details Fitz’s life over the next ten years or so, where he’s trained as a – you guessed it! – assassin’s apprentice. He also learns the arts of swordplay, Skilling, and the mastery of horses and hounds; but in spite of his achievements, almost no one – including himself – can see beyond his ‘shameful’ illegitimacy.

The focus of Assassin’s Apprentice is on Fitz and the conflict that surrounds him. He’s training to be a loyal assassin, yet can’t ignore his own sense of morality. He desperately wants to learn the Skill, but despises the cruel man who is teaching him. And he struggles to understand how he should feel about his father’s eccentric but well-meaning widow, Patience, who was responsible for his father’s decision to abdicate his claim to the throne and retire from the castle after learning of Fitz’s existence. Perhaps the Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobbmost defining of all is his ongoing conflict with the stablemaster Burrich, who loves Fitz like a son and yet is repulsed by his use of the Wit to the point where he will no longer speak to Fitz at all. Hobb makes us genuinely care about Fitz’s relationships, both good and bad, so that his mind-contact with his new puppy is just as exciting to read about as his altercations with his enemies.

But there are plenty of harsh challenges for Fitz, with many sad moments and passages that are genuinely moving. I found these parts of the story to be both emotionally draining and satisfyingly cathartic (in a good way), and am not ashamed to say I was actually reduced to tears on more than one occasion. Then there’s the assorted cast of truly reprehensible antagonists, in particular Galen and Regal, at whom my mind would boo and hiss whenever they appeared on the page. Seriously, they both made me furious. And that’s not even mentioning the true baddies of the story, who are currently operating in the background: the Red Ship Raiders are a constant threat to the coastal villages of the Six Duchies, and the ‘Forged ones’ – vicious zombie-like beings who are all that remain of the Raiders’ victims – are a chilling adversary.

Both the plot and the characters are well-rounded and captivating, as is the setting and worldbuilding. But the novel’s main strength is its narrative voice. Hobb writes with a consistently pleasant, engaging tone that makes Assassin’s Apprentice a joy to read from beginning to end. Her flowing, almost poetic prose makes the story light and effortless to read, and brings to the fore a likeable and sympathetic main character who is in many ways the opposite of Rothfuss’s Kvothe. Like Kvothe, Fitz is conscious of telling his own story; unlike Kvothe, Fitz is brutally honest, and his self-deprecating narrative includes all the damning facts about himself and his own actions. I can’t believe I’ve let him sit and gather dust for so many years without knowing how his story ends!lauramhughes-sig

‘The Black Company’ by Glen Cook


The Black Company is narrated through a single PoV: Croaker, a physician and annalist working for a mercenary force called – you guessed it! – the Black Company. The Company have been hired by The Lady (an ancient tyrant) who along with her monstrous generals (twisted supernatural beings known as the Ten Who Were Taken) is intent on defeating the Rebel armies and ruling all the known lands (obvs).

The Black Company by Glen CookCook’s writing style is not exactly immersive. While I would call it refreshingly blunt, others might (and often do) dismiss it as jarring and curt. The Black Company‘s brusque prose and terse descriptions – not to mention the author’s casual tendency to skip over major events in the spaces between paragraphs! – lend even major scenes a “blink and you’ll miss it” kind of urgency. This is a somewhat disorientating stylistic choice, but it’s one to which I quickly became accustomed.

I think The Black Company is the first example of ‘GRIMDARK’ fiction I ever read (closely followed by Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself). In fact, I still recall the thrill of reading it for the first time and getting to grips with the fact that this Cook feller had written an actual book about actual mercenaries who are actually fighting on the side of the bad guys. Nowadays, of course, grimdark tales are a dime a dozen. But back then, I’d never encountered anything of the kind. In my experience, fantasy protagonists were heroes. Young wizards. Daring hobbits. Chosen ones. Protectors. Guardians of humanity. Good guys. In stark contrast, Croaker and the rest of the Black Company are entirely motivated by greed and selfishness – at least to start off with. This, I soon discovered, made them just as entertaining as Harry, Ron and Hermione; as Eragon and Murtagh, and the Fellowship of the Ring.

And the characters aren’t the only selling point. Cook has also created a grim, eerie and satisfyingly dark world, which he establishes primarily by dropping carefully offhand hints about the Taken. With evocative (if slightly unimaginative) names like Nightcrawler, Soulcatcher, Moonbiter, Bonegnasher, The Howler, and The Hanged Man, the Taken lurk threateningly on the periphery where, shrouded in mystery, these monstrous creatures add an extra thrill of horror to the already ominous atmosphere.

The Black Company is also packed full of action. However, and most of it happens to be tersely described from a distance. While this befits the premise of Croaker as annalist (think Duiker in Deadhouse Gates), unfortunately it does at times feel like little more than a dull, dry listing of distant events. Furthermore, much of the action is disappointingly hampered by apparent numerical inconsistencies. For instance, although Cook informs us that the Black Company has hundreds of members he only ever lets the reader meet a handful. This wouldn’t be a problem… except that the others are barely even mentioned except when Croaker infrequently refers to the Company as a whole. It’s difficult, therefore, to reconcile that initial image of a small group of mercenaries with the massive force we’re suddenly shown later in the book.

And even the climax fell a bit flat, with Cook repeatedly telling us that the battle involves over 250,000 combatants – yet never quite succeeding in conveying the true scale of the conflict.

One final issue. Every writer knows that the biggest challenge with first-person narration is finding pretexts for the protagonist to witness and (ideally) participate in key events. Cook’s pretexts for getting Croaker in the thick of things – which essentially boil down to ‘get sent on special missions by the Lady again and again, despite not being one of the most skilled fighters in the company’ – are a bit flimsy to say the least.

Still, The Black Company is the progenitor of some truly stellar military fantasy by the likes of Steven Erikson and Jeff Salyards. While it’s a bit iffy to begin with, it soon books its ideas up, and is perfect for fans of the grimdark genre.lauramhughes-sig

‘Dune’ by Frank Herbert


I know everyone raves about this book… but for me, Dune was a mixed bag. On one hand, I enjoyed the desert setting, the fantasy elements, and the entire premise of the thing. On the other hand, I didn’t really relate to any of the characters, and a large portion of the book felt like something of a chore to read… which, let’s face it, is never a good sign.

But first: the positives.

I actually loved the beginning of the book, and quite quickly found myself warming to the main characters Jessica, Paul and Leto. Furthermore, the mythos – the gom jabbar and the Bene Gesserit and the Kwisatz Hadderach – intrigued me. I liked how I was thrown in at the deep end, and that the author was clearly intending to reveal things gradually rather than just explain it all straight away.

Dune by Frank HerbertThen again, I did feel there was too much exposition at this point, and that dialogue was being used a little too much to try and convey some of the background; I felt like the characters were unnecessarily talking about things for the sake of the reader. And the mysterious things that started out so intriguing? They actually got quite annoying the more the book progressed. I got the sense that I was being excluded from something, and while this doesn’t always bother me (it’s pretty much one of the hallmarks of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, aka. my favourite fantasy series of all time) it really started the get on my nerves here, to the point where I’d grind my teeth any time the words ‘Bene Gesserit’ or ‘prescience’ were mentioned. And I no longer give even the smallest of flying fucks about the Kwisatz Hadderach.

Anyway. I enjoyed the beginning of the book for the sense of total upheaval it conveyed; how the protagonists were literally transported from one world to another within a matter of pages, and that this new world was totally alien and hostile. One of my favourite scenes in the whole book happens around this point: Leto, the ‘thopter, the sandworm, the spice factory, the daring rescue . . . I LOVED this epic scene.

But it all went downhill from there – beginning with the main character apparently undergoing some sort of off-page lobotomy. Alright, I (kind of) get why Paul doesn’t have much personality; but it still makes for an incredibly unsympathetic protagonist. And I think in some ways all of the characters suffered from this: I felt like I was watching them do things, but I was ignorant as to why they were doing them. This disconnect made me less invested in the story as a whole.

I was pretty interested in the Harkonnens. However, they could have been fleshed out a LOT more – particularly the Baron, who is a rather disappointing villain: two-dimensional and defined only by his greed and his homosexuality (which is presented very negatively in this instance, and is yet another aspect of the story to dislike with vehemence). I would’ve liked to learn more of the feud between the Atreides and the Harkonnens, and instead felt that the scenes with the Baron ad Feyd-Rautha were a little shallow and irrelevant.

Despite all my gripes, I did enjoy Dune; just not as much as I’d hoped. I kept waiting for it to turn into something spectacular, and for some reason I never felt it really delivered everything it could have done. The only aspect at which it excelled (or so I feel) is the setting. The author paints a very vivid picture of the desert planet (although I did sometimes feel like he didn’t stress enough about how hot and uncomfortable it must be!) and of a population who want to change the ecosystem and create a better world. The concept of having to wear ‘stillsuits’ in the desert also lent an air of realism, being a very practical rather than romantic view of the rebels. And the sandworms are a brilliant invention (although I preferred them at the beginning when they were scary, rather than later when they were just used as glorified donkeys).

To sum up, then: there were plenty of things I liked about Dune, and plenty more that I didn’t. While the characters lacked character and the action lacked action, the fantasy (rather than SF) elements – such as the knife-fights and the sandworms – were excellent. I just wish there had been more of these, and less of the Bene Gesserit bollocks.lauramhughes-sig

Note: the original version of this review was posted on halfstrungharp.com on 5th January 2015.