Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Stormblood by Jeremy Szal

Book Title: Stormblood
Author: Jeremy Szal
Genre: Science Fiction
My Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
Source: Netgalley and paperback from publisher

Goodreads, Amazon UK 
Plot: Vakov Fukasawa used to be a Reaper, a bio soldier fighting for the intergalactic governing body of Harmony against a brutal invading empire. Now, he fights against the stormtech: the DNA of an extinct alien race Harmony injected into him, altering his body chemistry and making him permanently addicted to adrenaline and aggression. It made him the perfect soldier, but it also opened a new drug market that has millions hopelessly addicted to their own body chemistry.
But when Harmony tells him that his former ally Reapers are being murdered, Vakov is appalled to discover his estranged brother is likely involved in the killings. They haven’t spoken in years, but Vakov can’t let his brother down, and investigates. But the deeper he goes, the more addicted to stormtech he becomes, and Vakov discovers that the war might not be over after all. It’ll take everything he has to unearth this terrible secret, although doing so might mean betraying his brother. If his own body doesn’t betray him first.
What did I think?

I wanted to read this book because of the themes it tackles.

Firstly, Stormblood talks about drug addiction in an incredibly clever and futuristic way. Stormtech is DNA harvested from an extinct alien race that allows its user to become the perfect soldier, but they pay a price: addiction to aggression and adrenaline.

Secondly, I am a sucker for loyalty, chosen (found) families, and brotherhood. (I also love me some extinct ancient alien race.)

I'm not the biggest fan of military science fiction and prefer space operas to hard SF, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover the themes of friendship and brotherhood are far more important to this novel than any of the action scenes. That's not to say there aren't any action scenes. Stormblood offers plenty of incredibly well written action.

And that's probably my only complaint, and also an outright 'it's not you, dear book, it's me,' - I'm not a fan of lengthy action scenes and during certain scenes I was beginning to skim...however, every time I did, Szal almost immediately managed to capture my attention again.

When I read a book, I don't see the scenes played out in my head, so for me it's hard to stay engaged reading fighting scenes. Just tell me who won, okay? Obviously, that's never the book's fault, and I must say Stormblood's action scenes are incredibly lively and well written.

Szal's prose is smooth and his descriptions are vivid. The world is rich and layered. Exploring it reminded me of the times I was playing Mass Effect.

Vakov is a relatable character with a damaging and traumatic past and his voice is unique. I cared for his well being almost from the start. He is witty, sarcastic and clever. An addict fighting his inner demons and riddled with PTSD. I can't think of a more intriguing and interesting protagonist.

Stormblood is a fast-paced debut, set in a vivid world, filled with brotherhood, comradeship, loyalty, and chosen family.

I recommend it to every science fiction fan who is intrigued by the premise. (And why wouldn't you be?)

Friday, 22 May 2020

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

Book Title: Wanderers
Author: Chuck Wendig
Genre: Science Fiction, Apocalypse
My Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
Source: ebook & audiobook

Goodreads, Amazon UK

Plot: Shana wakes up one morning to discover her little sister in the grip of a strange malady. She appears to be sleepwalking. She cannot talk and cannot be woken up. And she is heading with inexorable determination to a destination that only she knows. But Shana and her sister are not alone. Soon they are joined by a flock of sleepwalkers from across America, on the same mysterious journey. And like Shana, there are other “shepherds” who follow the flock to protect their friends and family on the long dark road ahead.
For on their journey, they will discover an America convulsed with terror and violence, where this apocalyptic epidemic proves less dangerous than the fear of it. As the rest of society collapses all around them–and an ultraviolent militia threatens to exterminate them–the fate of the sleepwalkers depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart–or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.
Read this review by Julie Ann Rea, written for Three Crows Magazine. It's one of our best reviews, and Julie is a lot more eloquent than I am.

Wanderers is a huge book, and you'll see it compared to The Stand everywhere. They do have a lot in common, but Chuck Wendig's approach to a pandemic that'll wipe out humanity is, at least in the beginning, a lot gentler than King's.

This novel has the usual fanatics any fictional apocalypse needs, but it also has heart. A lot of heart. Strong relationships, loyalty, dedication, cooperation. And the science is incredibly well researched and fascinating. (Also a bit terrifying!)

What might put some people off liking Wanderers is how political it is. If you know Chuck Wendig and follow him on Twitter, none of it will come as a surprise, and he doesn't bury his message, doesn't attempt to veil it. It's right there on every page. 

While The Stand offers some biblical themes and, at least in places, a theistic worldview, Wanderers trusts science. Faith is a crutch, something to overcome.

The book is perhaps overly long in places, but if King can bring out an uncut version of The Stand, filled with random scenes and bits that could be (and originally were) cut, then I'm sure we can forgive Wanderers for being slow. Especially in the first half.

I enjoyed the characters and the writing so much that it never bothered me, and I gladly went along for the ride, even if the screaming, murdering, and dying didn't start until halfway through.

Oh and the president sits on her hands and does nothing...sound familiar?

Highly recommended to all fans of the apocalypse who don't shy away from a doorstopper.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Goldilocks by Laura Lam

Book Title: Goldilocks
Author: Laura Lam
Genre: Science Fiction
My Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
Source: Netgalley

Goodreads, Amazon UK

Plot: Despite increasing restrictions on the freedoms of women on Earth, Valerie Black is spearheading the first all-female mission to a planet in the Goldilocks Zone, where conditions are just right for human habitation.
The team is humanity's last hope for survival, and Valerie has gathered the best women for the mission: an ace pilot who is one of the only astronauts ever to have gone to Mars; a brilliant engineer tasked with keeping the ship fully operational; and an experienced doctor to keep the crew alive. And then there's Naomi Lovelace, Valerie's surrogate daughter and the ship's botanist, who has been waiting her whole life for an opportunity to step out of Valerie's shadow and make a difference.
The problem is that they’re not the authorized crew, even if Valerie was the one to fully plan the voyage. When their mission is stolen from them, they steal the ship bound for the new planet.
But when things start going wrong on board, Naomi begins to suspect that someone is concealing a terrible secret -- and realizes time for life on Earth may be running out faster than they feared.
I got a review copy from NetGalley; this is my honest review. HOWEVER, I'm strongly considering buying it for my partner on Audible. This is exactly the kind of book she reads!

What did I think?

I'm torn somewhere between three and four stars.

The premise is great. Goldilocks is set in the near future in a world that is on the brink of collapse and women are being forced out of the workplace due to conservative governments. So, it comes as no surprise that Valerie steals the spaceship that was supposed to be hers and takes her all female crew into space despite them having been forced out at the last minute.

The theme of the novel is pretty clear, and I'd even go as far as to say say that the author is throwing it in your face: we're destroying our planet (yup) and conservative governments are a threat to civil rights (no kidding?).

While the theme is a bit on the nose, the antagonist, unfortunately, is similar. Just a bit too much; just a touch too ruthless. To the point where I couldn't quite believe anyone in this position could turn out to be quite so monstrous! (You have to be very angry and bitter to go to the lengths the antagonist goes to and I could never root for someone like that.)

Overall, I felt like only one character (Valerie) was truly fleshed out and interesting, and all other characters, even the narrator remained somewhat bland. For a slow-burning book that centered around the characters for at least the first half, they were just a bit too flat.

However, I couldn't stop reading.

The prose is gorgeous, and I didn't want to put the book down; it kept me interested throughout. There's not a dull moment, and I just had to know what happens.

The science aspects were super interesting, and I enjoyed the relationships between the characters. And I must admit, most of the twists and turns managed to surprise me!

Recommended to all science fiction fans who find the blurb intriguing.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Blood and Ballet by Melissa Mitchell

Book Title: Blood and Ballet
Author: Melissa Mitchell
Genre: Paranormal Romance
My Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
Source: Author

Amazon UK, Goodreads

Plot Summary: In Anghor Manor, there is always a choice. When ex-ballet dancer Celine sees something she shouldn’t in the alleyway outside of Vienna’s hottest nightclub, Fluxx, owned and frequented by vampires, she is offered three choices.
Each choice is as frightening as the next. Unable to make up her mind, Cece bides her time. She wrestles with memories of her old life, a life she was forced to abandon when a devastating injury ended her ballet career.
Now she must pick up the broken pieces and move on, but moving on offers its own challenges, especially when Caius, lord of Anghor Manor, offers her something more precious than gold.
Blood and Ballet is a young adult novel with a fresh take on vampires, blending together the world of ballet with age old ideas, while adding a dash of Roman history. Transport yourself to Anghor Manor nestled in the countryside just outside of Vienna, where vampires lurk, blood rules, and romance awaits.
What did I think?

Somewhere between 3.5 and 4 stars.

When the author asked me if I'd review Blood and Ballet, I said yes because of the ballet. I wasn't disappointed. The dance scenes are enchanting and a big part of the book, and the passion for ballet basically drips from the pages.

Blood and Ballet offers a refreshing take on vampires, with an added dash of gladiators, and a compelling love interest with an interesting back story.

I'm not a fan of insta-love, and Mitchell took her time to develop both characters and the relationship between the two of them in a believable way. Plus, I'm actually a fan of the enemies to lovers trope, especially when it's well written like here.

The romance oscillates between heart-warming and steamy, and is contrasted by heart-pounding tension throughout.

It's a quick read and the prose is pleasant and engaging. It might feel a bit stilted at first, but it quickly finds its pace.

This is a satisfying read for fans of paranormal romance with vampires.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Sanctuary by VV James (Paperback release!)

Book Title: Sanctuary
Author: V. V. James
Genre: Mystery, Fantasy, Paranormal mystery
My Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
Source: Hardback

GoodreadsAmazon UK 
Plot: To Detective Maggie Knight, the death of Sanctuary's star quarterback seems to be a tragic accident. Only, everyone knows his ex-girlfriend is the daughter of a witch - and she was there when he died.
Then the rumours start
Bereaved mother Abigail will stop at nothing until she has justice for her dead son. Her best friend Sarah will do everything in her power to protect her accused daughter. And both women share a secret that could shatter their lives. It falls to Maggie to prevent her investigation - and Sanctuary itself - from spiralling out of control.
I originally received a review copy from NetGalley; this is my honest review.

HOWEVER, I own the special edition hardback, and my other half owns the audio book.

[I posted an early version of this review last August.]

What did I think?

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of Vic James, author of the Dark Gifts trilogy, [Here's my spoiler-free review of Bright Ruin.] and I was super excited to hear that she was releasing a new book.

Big Little Lies Meets Witches is probably the most accurate tagline.

I swallowed Sanctuary whole. Just like that. I couldn't put it down. Gripping from the very first page, just like Big Little Lies, I had to know what happens next, and I did not stop until the very end.

While reading the last 20% I thought I'd figured it all out. The secret, the culprit, the motive, and for one long minute I felt incredibly smug, but of course, I was wrong.

Sanctuary is filled with twists and turns, but it's the characters that make it.

The cast is diverse, and everyone is complex, filled with a drive to do what they think is right.

And this is what James is so very good at: showing us people whose actions we disagree with, people we loathe, people we think are utterly wrong, and making us see why they do it.

They're not bad people. They truly believe they and their families are in grave danger, and that they're the only ones doing something about it. They believe they're doing the only right thing.

Perspective matters!

A small, peaceful community can unravel in a matter of days...and James takes it all the way to the terrifying end.

As usual in James' work, nothing is black and nothing is white. Most of these people are grey, and I believe we're all grey, and the author is a master at portraying that emotional baggage we carry with us. Those mistakes we've all made, and how they sometimes haunt us.

But we're still good people, right?

The element of magic and witches is cleverly folded into the world building, and it feels entirely plausible that if witches were real, this is how they'd operate. You're feeling tired? You can either visit your GP or you can go to your local witch. Both will be able to help you.

I can't discuss the themes in Sanctuary too much without spoiling the plot, but they're incredibly interesting: Innocent until proven guilty is a cornerstone of our society, but what happens when a mob thinks the justice system is failing them? What if a small community decides the police aren't handling things as well as they should?

From mass hysteria to mob mentality and vigilante justice, this book has a bit of everything.

It's human not to trust what we can't understand, but accusing someone of murder just because of who they are is wrong...and, of course, the president is tweeting.

I recommend Sanctuary to everyone who is looking for an interesting mystery filled with twists and turns and witches.

Friday, 27 March 2020

Fiction Friday (4) - Tool

Tool

by Olivia Hofer

Note: A recent piece of flash fiction. I'm not entirely happy with the ending, and I wonder if perhaps the message is too on the nose.


Robert stared at the tool and scowled. He lifted his taser, ready to take it down. The tool looked up and stared back at him with wide human eyes. Fear darkened its blue irises.

It narrowed its eyes and focused on the taser, lifting strong metallic arms. “I’m not armed.” The voice was human, just like its eyes.

“Keep your hands where I can see them.” Robert spat. “Kneel.”

I’m not armed. The audacity. Robert spat again. The entire thing was a weapon.

“My brain is human,” the tool whispered. “I’m Brad.”

Robert huffed in reply. A human head screwed onto a wired, metallic body wearing a suit made of artificial skin didn’t make a tool a Brad. Granted, a human brain was better than an artificial one. At least Robert thought so.

The law was clear on this subject as well, but the judges were divided.

When was a human no longer a human? And how much of the original human had to remain to still be considered human?

Cases like Brad bounced from court to court.

But for now, human rights applied to all human brains.

Robert scoffed. That he disagreed with. The thing in front of him was a tool. Artificial spine and limbs. A body that survived without water, without food. Tools were unnaturally strong, unnaturally quick. They’d win every fight, every war. They couldn’t be allowed to roam the city—couldn’t be allowed to exist.

Not if Robert wanted his family to be safe.

“Are you police?” the tool asked.

Robert’s nostrils flared.

“Special ops? I have ID.”

Sniffing the air, Robert sneered. No sweat. He liked the stench of fear. Humans stank. Tools smelled of oil and metal, sometimes of burnt plastic.

Its knees creaked as it shifted, looking up at Robert. “Please. I have a family. Children. Human children.”

Robert blinked, lowered his taser. “You do?”

He’d joined the Anti-Tool Coalition a couple of weeks ago. An underground organisation with one aim only: step in where the law had failed.

A tool had attacked Robert’s wife, grabbed her handbag and run off. He’d been too fast for her, too fast even for the cameras. “He was a blur,” his wife had told police, and they’d said they’d check out every registered tool living nearby. But Robert knew what that meant…

Police didn’t have the manpower to tackle robberies, not when nobody was hurt.

“Two daughters,” the tool whispered. Its skinsuit was ripped on the back of its right hand, revealing wires instead of ligaments.

Robert cleared his throat. “How?”

“I wasn’t born like this, you know.” The tool sat back, hands behind its head. “You must know that most of us…” It fell silent, bit its lip like a human would, studying Robert with blue eyes. “Look at my phone. It’s in the left pocket of my jacket.”

Frowning, Robert raised his taser. He took a small step towards the tool.

You’re angry, aren’t you, Bob? Pete had asked after the robbery. Pete was a scrawny man with thin and oily hair who wore small, round glasses. They rarely spoke, but that week Pete introduced him to the Anti-Tool Coalition.

Never believe a tool. They lie. And before you know it, they’ll trick you. Never engage with a tool. Never speak to a tool. Protect yourself.

“Don’t move.” Robert pressed the taser against the tool’s chest and fumbled for its phone with his free hand. Taking three steps back, he tapped the screen. The smile of two girls greeted him. “Are these your daughters?”

The tool nodded. “Sarah and Anne. Sarah is six. She doesn’t remember…she doesn’t remember me before the accident, but Anne is nine. She complains that my knees are too hard to sit on.”

A smile tugged at Robert’s mouth. “Accident?”

And before you know it, they’ll trick you.

He pursed his lips and gripped the taser more tightly. “Actually, I don’t—”

“Army. Five years ago. Venezuela. My car went over a landmine.” The tool spoke quickly as though realising that Robert was about to cut him off.

“You were in the army?”

“Ten years. They paid for this.” It gestured towards its body with its chin.

“They don’t pay for upkeep?” Robert asked, pointing at the ripped skinsuit.

“It’s a one-off. I had to choose between a widow pension for my wife or a new body for me.” Brad lowered his eyes. “I’d asked for the pension, but my wife begged for them to bring me back.” Brad wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “What use am I to her like this? But I couldn’t…couldn’t let her down.”

Never speak to a tool.

Robert narrowed his eyes. “I was told there’d be an illegal trade tonight. Why are you here, Brad?”
“My knee joint is wearing out. I work as a delivery drone, but now that I’m slowing down, they’ll let me go. I was going to buy a new one.”

“On the black market…”

Brad nodded.

And before you know it, they’ll trick you.

Pete had introduced him to the director of the local Anti-Tool Coalition. They weren’t strictly legal, but the director, Thomas, a big burly man, shoulders and chest as wide as Robert’s wardrobe had shaken Robert’s hand firmly. “Welcome, welcome,” he’d said. “Pete told me about your wife. The government is dropping the ball on this issue. Soon, us natural humans will be the minority. And there’s no way to defend ourselves.” He’d not let go of Robert’s arm, and Robert had worried Thomas might pull it from its socket. “They’ll take our jobs, our women. They’ll take the country, and before we know it, we’ll be discarded. They’ll claim they’re better than us. But they’re not. They’re tools. Not human.”

Tools. Robert hadn’t heard the term before, but he’d liked it. A tool was something useful. Something that could be controlled, used, destroyed.

A tool wasn’t scary.

And a tool wasn’t human.

A tool could be thrown in the trash.

“Are you part of the Anti-Tool Coalition? Brad asked.

Robert nodded.

“What happened?”

“My wife was robbed by…” Robert’s voice trailed off, and he shrugged.

“Natural humans are known to rob,” Brad whispered.

Don’t talk to them. Use your taser. Wait for the police. Say you’ve felt unsafe. They will let you go. They won’t look too deeply into the death of a tool. Police these days don’t have the manpower, and most don’t care.

“The news—”

“Have found a new culprit. I know. Look, it’s tough for us, and I get that we’re scary. Hell, I’d be scared, too.” Brad slowly stood, his hands in the air, palms facing Robert. “I just want to go home to my daughters.”

Robert nodded. He lowered the taser and before he could say anything else, the man in front of him turned into a blur. A small woosh, wind tousling his hair, then Brad was gone.

Robert grimaced, looked at the taser in his hands.

And before you know it, they’ll trick you.

But Robert wasn’t sure it was Brad who had tricked him.

He turned to leave, dropping the taser. A clatter echoed off the walls as he walked away.


Robert didn’t look back.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Panik by Chris Selwyn James

Book Title: Panik
Author: Chris Selwyn James
Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopian, Apocalypse-ish
Source: Author

Amazon UK, Goodreads 
Plot Summary: The epidemic starts in Oxford. New, expensive drugs keep people awake for days, and strict controls are introduced to quarantine affected communities. Yet people are still dying in the night.
In this world, Nick peddles powerful sleep-deprivation drugs, while Rosa is locked up in a government "safe house" because they think she is the key to finding a cure.
Set in an isolated, pre-apocalyptic United Kingdom, PANIK tells a story about mass hysteria, profit-driven drug companies, and corrupt government. It explores how we are becoming less connected to each other, losing a core part of what it is to be human.
What did I think?

While this book ultimately wasn't my cup of tea, I did enjoy quite a few aspects:

The characters feel real, three-dimensional and are well developed. The pacing is on point; the story moves quickly and never feels slow.

Compassion, what does it mean to be human, and kindness are themes that I always enjoy reading about. Especially now that we see far too many negative headlines.

I must admit that I didn't quite click with the author's voice, and his tendency to switch from one character's point of view to another's just as their story filled with tension kept me from becoming fully immersed.

The plot itself is an interesting thought-experiment, but the ending left too many questions unanswered and didn't feel satisfying.

However, Chris Selwyn James took quite a few circumstances from our world and proceeded to explore an intriguing what if set in a pre-apocalyptic United Kingdom. From mass hysteria to profit-driven drug companies and corrupt governments, the author presents a chilling world, and it's a fitting read during this coronavirus lockdown.