‘Relics’ by Tim Lebbon


‘I like the fact there can be so many secret places in a city filled with people. It gives me hope.’

‘Hope for what?’

Dean frowned, unsure. He searched for the words. ‘For wonder,’ he said at last. ‘Mysteries. Mysteries are important, don’t you think?’

Mystery. Wonder. Secrets. If you recall, these are three things which also happen to characterise Fantasy-Faction’s pick for the SPFBO final – aka. Paternus by Dyrk Ashton – in which a young woman discovers that mythological creatures are alive and kicking in present-day America.

You might notice some aspects of Ashton’s quirky tale mirrored in Tim Lebbon’s latest offering, Relics, which tells the story of a woman who gets the shock of her life when she runs into walking, talking legends while searching for her AWOL fella in modern-day London. I’m sure you’ll agree that in terms of premise they’re similar enough to warrant the comparison. However, they differ greatly when it comes to execution.

Unlike Paternus, which is fast-paced and packed with mythology and monsters from the beginning, Relics doesn’t really kick off until the halfway mark. In fact, it takes around 30% of the book for anything to happen. Perhaps a lack of familiarity with the urban fantasy/thriller subgenres meant that my own preconceptions were unrealistic, but I expected the story to start with a bang and instead found it somewhat lacklustre – not to mention needlessly convoluted.

Let’s start with the daft subplot about rival gangsters, which wouldn’t feel out of place in a Matthew Reilly novel and which I can only describe as ‘random’.

‘I want you to see something.’

‘And what’s that?’ Angela asked.

‘My fairy.’ The woman’s gaze did not falter. […]

‘Boring,’ Angela said. ‘Already saw an angel today.’

That’s an exchange between one of the said gangsters and Relics’s protagonist, Angela Gough, who just happens to be studying for a PhD in Criminology. For all the emphasis on how her past research has made her aware or these people’s terrifying reputations, Angela’s sullen attitude and cocky behaviour when meeting them is totally at odds with the fear she feels in the pages leading up to these meetings. Inconsistencies like these mean she’s not easy to sympathise with, or to understand; her motives are all over the place, and her character arc is riddled with little contradictions.Relics by Tim Lebbon

Initially, Angela seems like a modern, independent woman in a healthy, long-term relationship with a modern, independent man (Vince). No unnecessary drama, no shock-value domestic abuse; just two protagonists we can quietly root for. But later – when Angela starts dreaming about Vince proposing to her (despite saying earlier that she wasn’t interested in marriage), and lamenting the fact that Vince never wanted to start a family – the author brushes on tired old tropes of ‘the long-term girlfriend’, which naffed me off massively. In her dream of the ‘perfect evening’ with Vince, Angela actually ends the conversation by saying, ‘I suppose you’ll want sex now.’ That one line of dialogue contains negative stereotypes of both genders, which I found infuriating; it’s as if the author couldn’t help but assume that ALL women think and behave in these ways, even when there are bigger things at stake. It’s for these reasons that I didn’t give very much of a damn about Angela until much later.

Thankfully, I didn’t abandon the book (though I was tempted to on several occasions). And while it still (for me) doesn’t entirely live up to what it seems to promise (the ‘black market’ mentioned in the blurb is merely a sketchy plot device; Lebbon never really explains what people do with the titular relics, or who is interested in them, apart from a couple of sadistic ‘collectors’ who also happen to be notorious London gangsters, because of course they bloody do.), it delivers in other, unexpected, ways.

‘Our Time ended so long ago, and since then we’ve been creatures of shadows. We’re tales told around campfires, legends passed down through the generations. We’re whispers and glimpses. You’ll find us in storybooks and make-believe films, but through it all we’re in hiding.

‘If we’re fiction, we’re left alone. […] If we’re fact, we’re hunted.’

Though we only meet a handful of the remaining ‘Kin’ (including Lilou, who just happens to be the best POV character in the book), one of Relics’s most enjoyable quirks is the way it subverts our expectations about mythical characters (again, very much like Paternus). For example, a quick Google search of ‘satyr’ paints a picture of a half-man, half-goat, one who’s young, drunk and constantly randy. Lebbon’s satyr, on the other hand – the psychopathic Ballus – suffers from erectile dysfunction, and loves nothing more than to crunch people’s skulls beneath his hooves, and dwells in an abandoned swimming pool with the dismembered remains of creatures he’s murdered. Carousing, fornication, or even solidarity with his fellows could not be further from this satyr’s mind.

‘Don’t make the mistake of thinking we’re all alike. Do you assume that a satyr thinks the same as a nymph bitch? You think this satyr—‘ he tapped his gray, hairy chest ‘—thinks the same as any other satyr? Don’t paint me with the same brush. I’m unique. I’m Ballus.’

Add to that a nymph who does her best to avoid being attractive, and a Nephilim who is monstrously un-angelic in both appearance and personality, and you have characters who are less alien and somehow more like flawed humans – just as some of Lebbon’s humans are clearly more bestial by nature than the creatures they hunt.

At this point I feel like I should probably add that if you don’t like seeing foxes get ripped in half (or people being tied to chairs and then bludgeoned with decomposing body parts), then Relics is probably not the book for you.

We’ll be fine. […] We’ve got wonders on our side.’

‘One of those wonders gored me with a dead thing’s splintered thighbone.’

‘Nobody’s perfect.’

As you can probably tell, I enjoyed (and would recommend) Relics in spite of my earlier complaints, which were largely a result of the high expectations I had going in. Plenty of people will be familiar with the author, Tim Lebbon (who is primarily a horror writer), and will likely have heard of his work even if they haven’t read it. After seeing the press release for Relics (not to mention admiring that striking, ominous black and blood-red cover design) I fully expected to be thrilled, and was disappointed to find that the supernatural elements are virtually non-existent until a good chunk of the story has gone by (and the fact that we spend much of that time following the protagonist, Angela, as she wanders around her apartment, goes out for coffee and occasionally talks to her friend also makes Relics a bit of a chore to read at times).

But if anyone picks this one up and discovers the same issues, rest assured that your patience will be rewarded when the sh*t finally hits the fan. Relics is an urban fantasy thriller, with a killer climax and some smart twists on classic myths and legends. A few more twists on tropes and characters, too, would have made it much more recommendable; as it is, it’s relatively fun, harmless pulp that many of you will probably enjoy.

Unless you’re a fox.

This review originally appeared on Fantasy-Faction on March 12, 2017.

‘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

Meeting Marc Turner!


Yesterday I travelled over hill and over (Roch)dale, through bush and through briar, over tracks with Northern Rail, through tunnels to a different shire… to meet Marc Turner!

Marc Turner, signing

Marc is one of my favourite modern fantasy authors. So when I learned that he’d be signing books at Waterstones in Leeds – which, by the way, is about a thousand miles (uphill!) away from the rest of the shops – I wrapped my copies of Red Tide et al. in my bindle and set off into the big city.

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After wandering lost for a while, I reached my destination and spent a delightful couple of hours lurking around the signing table with Marc (who is tall, soft-spoken and very humble) and his incredibly lovely wife (and naturally-gifted cactigrapher), Suzanne.

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Books were sold, cacti were drawn (by all!) and photos were taken:

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Additionally, I may have been mistaken for a shop assistant on multiple occasions… and been too polite to disabuse the (mostly elderly) customers of that notion.

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I left the signing with a grin on my face – and surprise copies of the gorgeous Exile US hardbacks! Thanks, Marc and Suzanne!

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Interview with Marc Turner

Marc Turner (header)(Note: ‘Marc Turner Interview’ first appeared on Fantasy-Faction on 21st September 2016.)


Marc Turner is the author of the epic fantasy series The Chronicles of the Exile. I had the pleasure of interviewing him for Fantasy-Faction  in September to celebrate the release of Red Tide, the stunning third novel in this ongoing series.

Good morrow, Mr. Turner! To start, I’d like to mention that I’m rather fond of your work. I picked up When the Heavens Fall because reviewers compared it (favourably!) to classic fantasy series such as The Malazan Book of the Fallen and The Black Company. I certainly wasn’t disappointed, and I went on to enjoy your second novel, Dragon Hunters, even more.

How do you feel about the (inevitable) parallels that readers draw between your work and others? Are there any unlikely comparisons that have surprised you?

'When the Heavens Fall' by Marc Turner (cover image)MT: “Since When The Heavens Fall came out, I’ve been compared to so many different authors, I’ve lost count. One reviewer compared me to nine in a single sentence – and five of those I’d never even read before!

“Comparisons can be flattering, but I think they are also dangerous things because they create (sometimes unrealistic) expectations in the reader. I never compare myself to any other author. I can say which writers have most influenced me – Steven Erikson and Joe Abercrombie – but the degree to which readers see those influences in my books varies greatly.”

You might find this hard to believe, but there are a LOT of people who have yet to dip their toes (eyes?) into the Chronicles of the Exile. With that in mind, could you perhaps give us a quick rundown of what new readers can expect from the series . . . and what the rest of us can expect from book three, Red Tide?

MT: “Readers can expect to laugh, to cry, to wear out the edges of their seats, and ultimately to finish each book in the series with an overwhelming urge to buy the next.

“As for Red Tide in particular, there’s not much I can say without giving away spoilers. But it features an entire nation of pirates, a man who can make his dreams manifest in the waking world, and perhaps a sea dragon or three. It’s my favourite book of the series so far, and the response from readers has been very positive.”

It has indeed – with very good reason!

Following on from that, would you be so kind as to dazzle us with what I like to call a ‘shark elevator pitch’? (It’s exactly the same as an elevator pitch, but with sharks.) (Well, one shark. Who, by the way, is currently picking between his rows of teeth to try and dislodge the remains of the last author who stepped onto his elevator.)

No pressure…

MT: “If I had to describe the Chronicles of the Exile in a sentence, I would call it epic fantasy with a dark edge and a generous sprinkling of humour.Dragon Hunters by Marc Turner (UK cover)

“And your sharks don’t frighten me. I have sea dragons on my side.”

Damn you, Turner, and the sea dragons you rode in on. Looks like you’ll live to write another day!

Speaking of writing and living: what’s the most exciting part of being a professionally published author? Aside from no longer having to sneak around supermarkets slipping photocopies of your hand-crayoned manuscripts inside Weetabix boxes, of course.

MT: “I do that thing with the Weetabix boxes too! Did that too. I meant did that too, obviously.”

Obviously…

MT: “The most exciting part of being an author has got to be seeing a new book hit the shelves, but I also enjoy the build-up to publication. Among other things, you get to sign off on the final version of the manuscript, see the cover for the first time, and hold the advance reader copies of the book in your hands.”

That does sound exciting! And the most daunting part?

MT: “Time management. At the moment, I’m drafting book four in the series, preparing articles for a blog tour, writing two short stories for fantasy anthologies, promoting When The Heavens Fall in Germany (it has just been published there), and doing a load of signings at Waterstones. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. But since I became a full-time writer, it seems like I have a lot less time to actually . . . write.”

Well, you must be doing something right. It’s barely more than a year since your debut dropped but you’ve gained quite a lot of traction within the fantasy community in that time. How does the public’s reaction to your work – and to yourself – compare with any early expectations you might have had?

MT: “I don’t recall having any particular expectations – which is probably just as well.

Red Tide (UK cover) by Marc Turner“If there is one thing that has surprised me, it is the different reactions I receive to my characters. I think it is important that in books with multiple POV characters (like mine), each of the characters should have a distinctive “voice”. Inevitably that means readers will like some characters more than others, but I am taken aback sometimes by the degree to which different people respond to the same character.

“Take Romany from When the Heavens Fall, for example. Fantasy Book Review said the following about her: “Intelligent, cunning, immensely likeable, her affable irritation and eventual humanity in the face of the maelstrom of uber-fantasy is remarkably levelling.” Another reviewer, though, simply dismissed her as evil.

“Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Even if it is wrong. ;)”

Indeed. Romany, evil? Pah! I’d call her chaotic-neutral at worst. 😉

Marc, in the past you’ve spoken at length about the importance of dialogue, and have (quite rightly) pointed out that writers can learn a lot about their craft from other artistic mediums, such as video games. But in a world such as yours – geographically sprawling, layered with history, packed with ‘epic’ elements such as gods, magic, battles and monsters – how would you rate the importance of dialogue in relation to all the other elements?

MT: “I’m not sure dialogue is more or less important than any other element of a fantasy novel, but it’s the part I enjoy writing most. It’s great both for shining a light on character and injecting humour. When I have cause to dip back into my own books, it’s usually dialogue that I end up reading.”

You certainly have a knack for it. I adored the barbed exchanges between Romany and the Spider in When the Heavens Fall, and without doubt one of my favourite aspects of Dragon Hunters was the snarky dialogue between Kempis and… well, everyone he spoke to. Are there any particular fictional characters and/or authors who inspired some of the witty repartee that makes your protagonists so much fun to follow?

MT: “The authors who have most inspired my dialogue are again Erikson and Abercrombie. I don’t think Erikson gets enough credit for his humour – or at least I don’t see him credited often enough. Though oddly when people discuss his most amusing characters, the names that most frequently come up are Tehol and Bugg, whereas I found their humour to be hit and miss. I find some of his other characters far more entertaining.”

Erikson is definitely a master of humorous dialogue, be it subtly barbed or openly cutting. Speaking of sharp-tongued protagonists: am I right in saying that you’re currently working on a short story starring none other than the infamous Mazana Creed? What can we readers (new and old) expect from her?Grimdark Magazine's 'Evil is a Matter of Perspective' anthology

MT: “Yes, Mazana Creed stars in a short story I have written for Grimdark Magazine’s Evil Is A Matter Of Perspective anthology. It is set a few years before the events in Dragon Hunters, and Mazana has been ordered to hunt down a notorious pirate in order to earn a place on the Storm Council. But, being Mazana, she’s going to do things her way.”

Sounds intriguing! Oh, and while we’re on the subject: now seems like a good time to mention that you’ve also written a short story featuring Luker Essendar, who also happens to be the first character we meet in When the Heavens Fall. Do you have any more shorts lurking up your, um, shorts? And if you had to write a collection of short stories set in the Lands of the Exile, which characters would you pick to headline?

MT: “I’m writing another short story at the moment for the Hath No Fury anthology which has been funded on Kickstarter. It will feature Jenna from When the Heavens Fall – probably. In the future, I might do some more stories set in the Lands of the Exile featuring characters from the series. I like the idea of some detective stories starring Kempis and Sniffer from Dragon Hunters. Kempis himself is less enthusiastic about the idea, though.”

That would be epic! Please, please, PLEASE make this happen. (Please?)

Pfft. Fine, Kempis. Be like that. *sighs*

Before we finish, Marc, I have to ask: cats or dogs?

MT: “Ah, that age-old conundrum. Whichever one I choose I’m going to end up upsetting lots of people, so you’re probably expecting me to hedge my bets. No beating around the bush from me, though, I’m going to come straight out and say … neither. Give me a dragon any day.”

Well played, sir. Very well played indeed… though the correct answer was clearly ‘cats’.

Thanks so much for your time, Marc. Good luck with book #4!


Red Tide, the third book in Marc Turner’s Chronicles of the Exile, is available to buy RIGHT NOW. Additionally, you can read Marc’s short story, ‘There’s A Devil Watching Over You’, on Tor.com, or listen to the audio version on his website.

Marc Turner, author of The Chronicles of the Exile

Marc Turner, ‘Red Tide’ (review)


Marc Turner is without doubt one of the most talented fantasy authors to have debuted in recent years. His latest offering, Red Tide, is the thrilling third chapter in the six-book Chronicles of the Exile, and is guaranteed to leave fans of this series absolutely blown away.

Red Tide (UK cover) by Marc TurnerRed Tide begins just days after the events of book two (Dragon Hunters). The Sabian Sea is too dangerous to sail, and the Storm Isles are floundering in the chaotic aftermath of Dragon Day. But one city’s misfortune can easily become another’s gain, and it’s clear that the opportunistic rulers on both sides of the Dragon Gate intend to take advantage of the situation . . . if only to fight each other for the scraps.

Right from the outset Turner presents us with greed, murder and betrayal . . . in other words, everything you’d expect from a civilisation founded on greed, murder and betrayal. We catch our first glorious glimpse of the Rubyholt Isles: a notorious conglomeration of pirate communities, tenuously led by a greedy, murderous and treacherous Warlord. Within just a few pages Turner manages to introduce not only a brand-new, Viking-like culture, but also two compelling new PoV characters – both of whom are on opposite sides of a tense and unprecedented political conflict. Needless to say the conflict soon escalates, whisking us away to the city of Gilgamar and the schemes of Emperor Avallon and Emira Mazana Creed. Readers should expect to see some familiar faces from Dragon Hunters, as well as other (possibly half-forgotten!) ones from When the Heavens Fall (book one).

Perhaps the most notable thing about Turner’s writing is his versatility. The Chronicles of the Exile boasts a wonderful variety of styles, scopes, characters and tones, which makes each successive instalment feel strikingly different from the last. This gives it quite an experimental feel – particularly since the first two books not only feature entirely different characters and settings but also seemingly-unrelated plots – which is refreshing rather than disorienting. The complex, sweeping epic of When the Heavens Fall is vastly different from its sequel, Dragon Hunters, which is set entirely on and around the island city of Olaire and is written with a much lighter tone.Red Tide (US cover) by Marc Turner

Red Tide has more in common with the latter than the former, continuing the nautical theme and returning once more to the southern coast of the Sabian sea. Most importantly (particularly for those who were bewildered by their seeming lack of connection) Red Tide draws together some of the disparate elements of the first two books. He does this gradually and subtly, which I guarantee will lead to more than one ‘ah-ha!’ moment (or, if you’re anything like me, a flickering lightbulb moment of slow-dawning realisation).

Turner pulls each separate character steadily and irrevocably into the central conflict, then flings obstacles at them whilst also pushing them irresistibly towards one another. In contrast to the masterful slow-build of When the Heavens Fall, Red Tide is far more fast-paced: the tone is lively, and the action is consistently gripping. Best of all, Turner doesn’t exploit every single potential combination of characters. Instead, he teases us with near-meets, creating ‘what if?’ scenarios and then holding them tantalisingly out of reach.

Personally, one of my favourite aspects of Red Tide – and of the entire series – is the way the author conveys the sheer scope of his world without ever going overboard (see what I did there?) with the details. He uses brief conversations, cryptic naming traditions, local legends and stunning scenery to hint at a vast backdrop of unknown elements. In Red Tide, the focus lies on what lurks under the sea: readers can look forward to terrifying glances of The Rent (a vertigo-inducing black hole beneath the waves), the Dragons’ Boneyard (along with its chthonic web-spinning denizen) and of course the deadly coming-of-age trial known only as the Shark Run. Turner gives us the impression that a vast amount of history and lore is straining to just burst into the story and cause untold chaos. Most impressive is his ability to do this without deviating from the main plot whilst also (conversely) raising more questions than he answers.

Why should you pick up this series? Well, if I haven’t managed to convince you how effing fantastic the latest release is, just take a look at the reviews for books one and two. You’ll find a lot of favourable comparisons to other authors in the genre – and it’s easy to see why.

For a start, When the Heavens Fall is threatened by the presence of immortal, crazy-powerful supernatural beings. Turner’s descriptions of these – understated, yet chilling – strongly bring to mind the Taken in Glen Cook’s Black Company. Then in Dragon Hunters the author entertains us with the sort of quirky, rock-hard, dark-humoured characters you’d expect to find dwelling in Steven Erikson’s Malazan series.

Red Tide brings the best of both. Furthermore, the Abercrombie-esque diversity of the characters – be it Amerel’s unforgiving pragmatism or Romany’s sardonic humour; Senar’s wry indecision or Galantas’s arrogant charm – ensures that every PoV has its own way of entertaining the reader (incidentally making it very difficult for the reader to choose who to root for!).

“What was she thinking? This couldn’t be murder; this was war. Killing wasn’t murder if you stole the victim’s country while you were at it.”

So, if you enjoy the novels of Glen Cook, Joe Abercrombie and Steven Erikson, chances are you’ll love Marc Turner’s stuff. But though the series does have plenty in common with First Law, Malazan, Black Company and others, the world Turner has created in The Chronicles of the Exile is deep, unique and entirely his own. Turner’s star is on the rise: Red Tide is his strongest outing to date, and one of the finest fantasy novels of 2016.

A Motherfuckin' DRAGON


If you’re still undecided about starting the series, you can read a Chronicles of the Exile short story for FREE over on Tor.com.

This review was originally published at Fantasy-Faction.com on 19th September 2016.

Marc Turner, ‘Dragon Hunters’ (review)


Dragon Hunters is the exciting second instalment in Marc Turner’s Chronicle of the Exile, which is rapidly becoming one of my favourite fantasy series of recent years.

Dragon Hunters by Marc Turner (UK cover)Dragon Hunters is thoughtful, hilarious, and even more entertaining even than its predecessor. Turner once again demonstrates a master’s grasp of the slow-build: he pulls each separate character’s story arc steadily and irrevocably into the central conflict, then flings obstacles at them whilst pushing them irresistibly towards one another in an epic, action-packed convergence.

The four main PoVs in Dragon Hunters are all compelling in their own ways. That said, it’s easy to pick a favourite (or two): Karmel, a naïve but feisty Chameleon priestess; and Kempis, a jaded Storm Guard with a healthy lack of respect for authority . . . and a somewhat laid-back approach to upholding the law. The secondary characters are no less intriguing, and I for one look forward to learning more about Mazana Creed, Caval, Mili and Tali in future books.

In my review of book one, When the Heavens Fall, I mentioned how skilfully Turner managed to  convey the sheer scope of his Lands of the Exile without going overboard with the details. He achieves the same thing in Dragon Hunters, painting a mysterious backdrop of unknown elements – titans, old ruins, dragons, water magic, stone-skins – without elaborating overmuch. In doing so, he creates the impression of a terrifyingly vast amount of history and unknown lore that’s just straining to burst into the story and cause untold chaos. (And he does all this without the use of info-dumps, and without straying from the main plot very much at all.)
Dragon Hunters by Marc Turner (US cover)
I can say for sure that Turner’s second book feels much more accomplished than his debut (which was nonetheless excellent). The entirety of Dragon Hunters feels much more cohesive than Heavens: right from the start I had the impression that all four main characters were going to converge at some point, and I enjoyed accompanying them on their various journeys. New readers may want to consider using this book as an entry point to Turner’s work: Dragon Hunters takes place in an entirely separate part of the Lands of the Exile than the first book, and can actually be read and enjoyed without any prior knowledge of the series. However, certain subtle hints and sly mentions add an extra layer of fun that only readers of the first book will be able to appreciate.

Regardless of whether or not you’ve read the first book, I’d highly recommend Dragon Hunters to any fantasy fan who enjoys irreverent protagonists, wry humour, epic worldbuilding and mercurial politics.

Oh! And dragons.

Marc Turner, ‘When the Heavens Fall’ (review)


It was obvious from the very first page that Marc Turner’s Chronicles of the Exile was yet another epic fantasy series I’d end up eagerly following. After seeing When the Heavens Fall reviewed by a number of bloggers I follow, I was completely pulled in by the overwhelmingly positive comments as well as numerous comparisons to Steven Erikson (my favourite author) and Glen Cook. And I can totally see where these comparisons are coming from.

'When the Heavens Fall' by Marc Turner (cover image)For a start, there’s a whole host of crazy-powerful supernatural beings, the understated yet chilling descriptions of which strongly reminded me of the Taken in Cook’s Black Company. Then there are the sort of quirky, rock-hard, darkly humorous characters you’d expect to find dwelling in Erikson’s Malazan series, not to mention long-lost ancient races and interfering gods using the world as their own personal chess board. And there’s also a dark, gritty undertone – the sort of ‘grimdark’ sensation that none of the characters are ever going to catch a break – that put me in mind of Joe Abercrombie’s excellent First Law trilogy.

But, as easy as it is to say “fans of Cook/Erikson/Abercrombie will love this book,” When the Heavens Fall is not as easily pigeonholed as that. Turner takes much-loved aspects of the above authors’ writing, but has used them to embellish rather than define his own work, a homage as opposed to a blueprint.

I’ll freely admit that it was these comparisons that first drew me in. But what actually kept me reading was Turner’s careful build-up to a final convergence which, while not quite as climactic as I’d hoped, was nonetheless well executed and satisfying. The climax itself and the form it takes is deliberately signposted right from the beginning, but the routes by which our characters arrive there are sufficiently twisted that, while we can guess what will happen, we’re entirely unable to predict how it will happen.

Having the entire plot of a novel building up to one single moment can be risky – especially with sequels on the horizon – but in this case I found it refreshing, a bold change from the many sprawling fantasy epics I usually read. The author uses the alternating viewpoints of a small handful of characters to great effect, switching between them at varying points within each chapter to build momentum and create tension. I personally found all four POV characters to be likable, but unpredictable; and while this meant that I didn’t quite connect with the characters as much as I would have liked, it did keep me constantly guessing what they would do next . . . with many pleasant (and nasty!) surprises as a result.

Yes, When the Heavens Fall is somewhat slow to begin with. But once it gets going there’s no stopping it; and it really gets going once it hits the halfway point. There’s a notable change of pace at around the two-fifty page mark, and the story shifts up several gears from the moment the characters’ stories first begin to overlap. The characters themselves are compelling if not always sympathetic: a particular favourite of mine is Romany, the self-indulgent-yet-badass high priestess whose witty and irreverent verbal exchanges are a constant source of entertainment. The big climax is enjoyable if slightly drawn out, and for every problem resolved there are another ten questions still needing answers. Marc Turner  is certainly one to watch, and he does an admirable job of making his readers clamour for the next book without leaving us on a cliffhanger.

With book three, Red Tide, due out next month (September 2016) I’d say that now would be a very good time for those unfamiliar with Turner’s series to start making its acquaintance . . .

(Note: review originally posted on 10th August 2015 on halfstrungharp.com).

Marie Brennan, ‘A Natural History of Dragons’ (review)


I’ve got nothing against dragons, especially when they play such a vital part in so many awesome fantasy series. After all, dragons are integral to the whole mythos of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen; dragons feature prominently in such celebrated fantasy works as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Cycle; and of course the entire plot of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit couldn’t have existed without that most iconic of dragons: the mighty Smaug.
brennan-lady-trent-dragons

This is all well and good; I’ve no objection to a few dragons here and there so long as they’re serving some kind of function within the story, be it as an awesome plot device or as a way of setting the scene. But when their presence in a novel seems to serve no other purpose than just sort of existing . . . well, that’s when dragons start to feel kind of stale. And ‘stale’ is not a word that should be used when referring to giant flying monsters.

And this is where the first of the Memoirs by Lady Trent makes its grand entrance. Here, Marie Brennan has accomplished something extraordinary: she has made dragons fresh and exciting again, no easy feat in today’s competitive and draconian-saturated SFF market. Remember when you first discovered fantasy, and felt that awesome thrill of wonder and possibility? A Natural History of Dragons takes us back to that giddy moment through the wonderful character of Isabella, and the captivating tale of her childhood passion for dragons.

Unlike so many modern female fantasy protagonists – who are often termed ‘strong’ characters as a result of their skills in either weaponry or manipulation – Isabella is strong in that she remains true to her own nature in the face of her male-dominated surroundings. Despite her outwardly ‘outrageous’ behaviour, Isabella retains her girlish charm and naïveté; she never compromises her femininity, in spite of her ongoing struggle against the social restrictions of a strictly patriarchal society; and most importantly of all, she continues to cling to her lifelong passion – the study of dragons – even when the pursuit of this passion seems like an impossible dream. She is, quite simply, a hugely likeable and sympathetic protagonist. Furthermore, Brennan’s narrative voice is beautifully elegant and consistently engaging. In fact, the entire novel is suffused with the observant wit and wry humour of Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte, with the fantastical subject matter providing an intriguing vehicle through which the author probes issues of class, gender and morality – though it never once sounds preachy.

Add to all this a delightful cast of secondary characters, continually subtle yet vivid settings – particularly the eastern-European-esque wilderness of Vystrana – and frequent injections of self-deprecating humour, and you have the essence of Marie Brennan’s wonderful tale. A Natural History of Dragons is always engaging and entirely charming, and abounds with moments of tension, humour and emotion. Isabella may just be my new hero, and the Memoirs by Lady Trent my new favourite series.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 10th October 2015)


Blurb

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.