Category Archives: Books

The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley

One of the best things about signing up to a NetGalley account is knowing you have a better than even chance of coming across a book that, while it is yet to be published, you can read it before most other people, and then tell the world how great it is, knowing somehow you’ve done your part to boost its success in the eyes of its authors, publishers, and future readers. All this to say, I’ve just finished reading The Kingdoms by British writer Natasha Pulley and you should at this very moment stop what you’re doing and order it from whatever online service works for you. This book is a heart-breaking but life-affirming masterpiece, all wrapped up in a plot that is complex and poignant.

The Kingdoms is initially set in the year 1898, where Natasha Pulley imagines an alternate history in which England lost the Battle of Trafalgar to France, resulting in the French invading London and installing itself as the ruling power and households now have English people as slaves. There is resistance from Scotland, where a group known as the Saints fight back when and where they can. Joe Tournier steps off a train in London having travelled from Edinburgh and finds that his hold on reality is vanishing rapidly. An enforced stay at a psychiatric hospital reveals he suffers from a type of amnesia brought on by epileptic episodes. Eventually he is identified and returned to a family that has enslaved him. He has a wife he doesn’t recognise and life he’s not familiar with, but he gets by because it’s what’s expected of him. His world is further turned upside down when he receives a postcard from someone called ‘M’, dated nearly 100 years in the past. Through a series of events and choices, Joe makes his way to Edinburgh, to the lighthouse pictured on the postcard, and soon he’s in another time and place.

Joe is the character through which we experience this new world, but he’s not the only person we connect to. Missouri Kite is a Spanish pirate who has joined the English resistance and using the portal near the lighthouse though which ships can travel from one time to another, he kidnaps Joe hoping to use the man’s knowledge of future technology to reshape the past and restore balance and history. But with every action in the past, the future itself becomes uncertain. Joe is afraid that if he helps Missouri and his sister Agatha then he will lose his own place in time and his daughter may very well fade into non-existence. But he feels a profound connection to the Spaniard, and there’s almost a symbiotic relationship between the two. There is more going on between then than meets the eye.

Natasha Pulley (via author’s website)

Two things must be real for me to enjoy a book, particularly one from the genre of speculative fiction and fantasy. The world-building while complex must ring true, and the characters have to jump out of the page and hold you until their story is done, leaving you to pick up the pieces of your life when the book is finished. I read the last two or three chapters of The Kingdoms twice, not because I needed to fully understand what was happening to the world, but because I wanted to feel my feelings again. The ending is beautiful. If I say anything more, I could end up spoiling the book. If you have read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, then you’ll know what to expect from The Kingdoms. I haven’t, but now I want to.

The Kingdoms is historical speculative fiction at its finest. I fell in love with Joe and Missouri. I sympathised and empathised with their plights. My heart broke more than once for Agatha. The battle scenes are butal and history, whichever one it ends up being, never felt more vibrant and fluid. I thank NetGalley and the book’s publishers for providing me with an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. I also wish to thank Natasha Pulley for writing such a beautiful and thrilling novel. I will look out for more of her work in the future.

Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace

I found Firebreak purely by chance. I was scrolling through NetGalley recommendations, not really sure what genre I was looking to read, but basically I wanted something to jump out at me. Literally grab me by the scruff of my neck and say, “Read me, you fool!” I couldn’t see anything immediately, but soon after I got an email from NetGalley, singing “Hello! Is it me you’re looking for?” There, slap bang in the body of email was indeed the book I was looking for.

You don’t have to be much of a political commentator to know that the world has gone to hell in a hand basket. Authoritarian, nationalist and populist governments are the norm rather than the exception in practically every economy on the planet. These are scary times, and there doesn’t seem to be a way through the gloom right now. But as bad as it all appears to be, you cannot discount the indomitable nature of humanity. Author Nicole Kornher-Stace‘s first novel for adults is full of this spirit, and it’s badly needed.

It is 2134 and what’s left of the United States of America after ecological and economic disaster is divided up between two super-corporations, Stellaxis Innovations and Greenleaf Industries. Stellaxis controls the water supply, while Greenleaf controls all elements of agriculture. The two are permantly at war with each other but have reached a stalemate with New Liberty City. Mal and her friends live on the outside, in the old town, copped up together in a hotel room. Their water is rationed; power goes off in the evenings; and they work as many jobs as they can to ensure they can pay for the things we take for granted. They have barely enough to get by, but there’s always the chance they might find themselves in a dehydration clinic if they don’t get enough water. A visit there would cost them more than they could pay. To make ends meet, and to keep themselves entertained, Mal and her friends livestream themselves as they game away on SecOps on BestLife, Stellaxis’s wargame. The more successful they are at the game, the more sponsorship they get, coming in the form of cash, weaponry for the game, and credit for water. A chance meeting with one of Stellaxis’s Non-Player Characters (NPC), known as 22, brings Mal and her best friend Jessa in contact with B, a mysterious new sponsor who tells them the true origins of the NPCs.

Firebreak begins in the middle of a livestream and once you settle in and get comfortable with the pace and environment, Nicole throws in a conspiracy that changes the nature of the story and characters. Mal isn’t what you may call a sociable person; she leaves the talking to Jessa, who’s like the manager of their partnership. They’re a duo, with each bringing their special qualities to the table. Jessa narrates their adventures online while Mal racks up the points with kills and bravado. But all this changes when they come to the attention of Stellaxis, and that’s when their lives and the lives of their friends are put in danger.

Nicole Kornher-Stace (image: Fantasy Book Critic)

A good novel, whatever the genre, lives or dies by its characters and character development. Mal and Jessa are introduced as fully-formed individuals and over the course of Firebreak grow in ways they probably thought not possible. All they want to do is live to game another day, but they’re not selfish people. Everything they have, they share with their friends, and this becomes important as the book nears its climax. This selflessness has its rewards. All throughout, Nicole Kornher-Stace treats us to action scenes that don’t hold back on violence or consequence. Our heroes are bloodied but unbowed. Nicole has created a frightening world, one which should serve as a lesson to us all: we are one major disaster away from everything we hold dear and take for granted crashing to the ground around us.

Firebreak is an exhilerating and exciting read, replete with vibrant and conflicted characters, in a world that is both real and unreal. It could be our future. Pray it’s not.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publishers of Firebreak for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Nicole Kornher-Stace’s novel is on sale now.

Books That Shaped Me: The Prince of Tides

I’ve sat looking at the title of this blog for the last half an hour or so, wondering if “shape” is the right word to use. I mean, I know what I want to say, but “shape” could be off-putting. But then again, maybe not. I guess what I’m trying to say is, until I picked up a book most of the world was unknown to me, apart from whatever my parents and teachers told me. I had to find a lot out by myself. As much as I loved TV shows growing up (I still do: if you look at my Twitter feed, I’m all about Line of Duty these days), when I opened a book and immersed myself in whatever literary world I decided to inhabit at the time, I learned more about human nature and human relationships that anything I heard in a classroom or a church pulpit. The genre didn’t matter; we humans act the same whatever the setting, wherever we find ourselves. So I think it’s right to say that as I grew into my reading, certain books impacted me in ways that still sit with me years and even decades later. Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides is one of those books.

Published in 1986, The Prince of Tides is the story of former football player and high-school teacher and coach Tom Wingo. Married with three young daughters, he has a twin sister, Savannah, a poet who lives in New York, who has had mental health issues since she was a child. Another suicide attempt uproots Tom from his home and family in South Carolina to his sister’s side. In doing so, he leaves behind his own mess: his wife Sallie is having an affair, and he’s not surprised by this at all. Clearly a number of things aren’t right with the Wingo family.

Tom meets his sister’s psychiatrist, a beautiful Jewish woman called Susan Lowenstein, and she challenges Tom to fill in the blanks in Savannah’s and his family history. It’s a journey down memory lane that is both traumatising and eventually healing. Along the way Tom and Susan form a relationship that is combatative but respectful. They come from very different backgrounds, financially and culturally, but Susan’s husband is indifferent to her and is also having an affair. So they have a lot in common when it comes to intimate relationships. Tom and Susan have an affair of their own, which changes how each of them views life, love, and family by the end.

I wasn’t familiar with Pat Conroy before I picked up this book in the early 1990s. I knew about the movie version, though, but hadn’t at the time seen it. I may have chosen to read the book because of the movie, being a fan of Barbra Streisand’s film and music career, and also who doesn’t love a bit of Nick Nolte. I followed his career from his Rich Man, Poor Man days. Perhaps I may have picked up The Prince of Tides because of its theme of family relationships and how they can, if they’re not nurtured and allowed to grow, mess up even the most steadfast of people. I confess to not being in the best of places in life when reading this book. Outwardly I might have looked like I was doing okay, but inside I was close to being a mess. I flitted between jobs and missed a couple of really good opportunities to do well in life and personal relationships, but I found myself making one bad decision after another, all of which had my family wondering where the hell my common sense had gone. I was also drinking too much (something Mr Nolte can relate to), and it took me another decade to do something about that.

Pat Conroy’s writing, however, sang to me. I don’t think there’s one author out there whose prose style has touched me in the way Conroy’s did. You would be surprised to know, though, that I never read any of his other books; this despite him being the author of recognised classic American novels like The Great Santini, Beach Music, and The Lords of Discipline. I don’t know why this it. It could be that I’m afraid to read an author who, though he came from a completely different background to me, seems to know what I’m about. That is scary.

Pat Conroy (image: The Guardian)

Writers and readers will ask the question of themselves and others: what draws you to a book–is it the plot or is it characters? For me, any writer worth their salt can plot a book until the cows come home. It’s the easiest part, in my opinion: Lord knows I’ve plotted enough books and stories over the last 15 years to fill a dozen trilogies. But characters are the key. Pat Conroy deep-dived into the hearts and souls of every character he put in The Prince of Tides. Only the Master of Horror himself, Stephen King, could consistently do this book after book after book, regardless of the plot. I’m sure Pat Conroy did the same, but I’ve got to pluck up the courage to read another of his works. Maybe soon, who knows.

The Year Before The End by Vidar Hokstad

All through last spring and into early summer, I read books two to eight of James S.A. Corey’s epic space opera series The Expanse, one after the other. Once I reached the end of book eight I knew I had a long wait ahead of me before the series was concluded. Now we have a date: Leviathan Falls will be published on November 16, 2021. I for one cannot wait. Until then, though, I was on the look out for something similar to read. I love edgy science-fiction. By this I mean, I like my futuristic universe to be both realistic and gritty. Just because humanity can reach for the starts, it doesn’t mean that the future would look glorious and hopeful. If we know anything about being human it’s that wherever we go, we bring our mess with us: we leave very little behind. Science fiction, if it’s written and presented well, can give us very perceptive insights into what it means to be human. We look to the stars and see a bright future ahead of us, and then we let our collective egos get in our way. The Year Before The End, by Norwegian writer and techie Vidar Hokstad, is a great example of what I’m talking about.

First contact has been made, and visitors from the nearby Alpha Centauri system are eager to being trading with our solar system. But they won’t be able to travel to us unless we build a gate that will allow two-way traffic between the two systems. Plans are in place and much building has been done, to such an extent that when the book begins we’re a year away from the project’s completion–The End of the title. But not everyone is pleased with meeting and greeting our new extraterrestrial trading partners. Member of Sovereign Earth, an alliance against any form of non-human pacts, are planning system-wide acts of sabotage, pitting Earth against Mars especially.

In the midst of all this we meet Captain Zara Ortega and the crew of the freighter Black Rain. Zo, as she is called in the book, is hired by a shady individual to raid a space station called Vanguard and rob from its vault information that will prove to everyone that the Centauris are in league with Mars separatists and plan to carve up the solar system between them, leaving Earth very much in the lurch and out of the picture. Of course no reasonable person would want this kind of action to take place, so Zo, in return for a big payday, agrees to take the job on. And that’s where the problems begin, because we’re left wondering who, if anyone, is telling the truth.

Vidar Hokstad

Those of us who have seen Rogue One will be familiar with the premise of a ragtag group of people attempting to achieve the impossible. Getting into the place is an issue in and of itself, but retrieving the information and getting out alive is quite another. When there’s a surprise attack on the station by persons unknown, Zo and her crew end up fighting battles on all sides. Plus there may be a traitor among the crew. The action flits from one set-piece to another, literally jumping between asteroid belts and space stations, with a very intriguing series villain introduced on a station called Nautilus. Mayhem ensues, and death and destruction around every corner.

Vidar Hokstad knows what he’s talking about when it comes to world-building, concepts, and technology. He starts his series well, and while his supporting characters could use a bit more fleshing out, my favourite has to be Clarice with her augmented eyes and introspective personality. Hokstad peppers his series debut with a lot of technological details that does at times slow the story down unnecessarily. But I found the same thing happened with the first book in The Expanse series, Leviathan Wakes, and look how that series turned out. Vidar Hokstad is on to something here, and if he can iron out some of these issues for the next book in the series, Galaxy Bound, then I think he has a winner. I’m looking forward to seeing where this one goes.

The Magdalene Veil by Gary McAvoy

The Easter break is over, and so too is my reading of Gary McAvoy’s hugely entertaining Magdalene trilogy, which started with The Magdalene Deception, continued with The Magdalene Reliquary, and now concludes with The Magdalene Veil. During the course of these three fast-moving and engaging adventures, we follow the same trail of breadcrumbs scattered throughout history that the trilogy’s main characters do. Whether or not they lead you to the same crisis of faith Fr Michael Dominic faces is beside the point; the thrill is in the journey.

In each of the preceding novels I was able to relate them to some other book or movie that had captured my interest in the past. With The Magdalene Veil, my thoughts turned to one of each: Where Eagle’s Dare (1968), the preposterously entertaining WWII romp with Richard Burton and a brilliantly sardonic Clint Eastwood who, if they weren’t killing Nazis, were calling Danny Boy on the radio; and Ira Levin’s conspiracy thriller The Boys From Brazil, also a movie, starring the ultimate in odd couples, Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier, Oscar winners both. The Magdalene Veil takes concepts from both movies and books and runs with them in a couple of very surprising ways.

Much has been made of the Third Reich’s interest in the occult. Anyone who has seen Raiders of the Lost Ark might be aware that Hitler was indeed a “nut on the subject”. So much so, he and his evil goons set up an organisation called the Ahnenerbe, tasked with justifying their hatred of the Jewish race by delving deep into Aryan ancestry and uncovering shared DNA with the biblical Jesus. Heinrich Himmler allegedly finds the proof he needs, but before he can escape to Argentina with the relic, he is caught by Allied forces and kills himself. Fast forward to the present day, and Fr Dominic and his friend, journalist Hana Sinclair, are approached by a man who claims he knows, via a diary his father kept, where this relic can be found. Of course the path to glory rarely runs smooth, especially when exiled Nazis are lurking around every corner.

The bulk of the action this time around takes place in Bariloche, a German settlement in the Patagonia region of Argentina. The South American country is also the place where the former Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Dante, has been exiled to. He finds fellow conspirators in the burgeoning neo-Nazi community (as you naturally would if you were fake-Catholic, I guess). Eventually he will have to cross swords with the people who put him there.

All of the elements that made the first two books in the series enjoyable to me are present here. The two Swiss Guards, Karl and Lukas, are in their element, using the skills they inherited from their training to aid in rescue and recovery missions. I’d have these two on my team of bodyguards any day of the week, if such a service was ever needed. Hana’s grandfather always has a private jet lying idle, which comes in handy for fast, frictionless international travel. And there’s always God, who will take the side of the righteous when things don’t go according to human planning. He’s normally reliable that way.

Gary McAvoy utilises his own skill-set perfectly well, too, mixing historical fact with historical fiction. He very helpfully links his research at the end of the novel, and all he wants is for readers to be entertained and to want to read more about the secret history of the Third Reich. When the Nazis get what they deserve, it’s hard not to pump your fist with victory. Because who doesn’t want to see Nazis defeated all day every day?

I enjoyed reading these books and I would recomment them to fans of Robert Ludlum and Dan Brown. My thanks to Gary McAvoy for providing me with a copy of The Magdalene Veil in exchange for an honest review. I loved it. Honestly.

Later by Stephen King

In the week I finally got around to watching all nine episodes of CBS’s recent adaptation of The Stand, it seemed apt that I also took the time to read the latest publication from the Master of Horror himself, Stephen King. Later is the third novel King has published under the imprint of Hard Case Crime, the other two being The Colorado Kid and Joyland. It’s notably shorter than most of King’s output, but at 248 pages, I was left with the feeling that it could’ve been a longer book. That’s not to say that I felt cheated — King, as an author and a human being, has never cheated me as a reader, regardless of what you think about how he closed off his magnum opus, The Dark Tower.

(Photo: GameSpot)

Drawing immediate comparisons with M. Knight Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, Later is the story of Jamie Conklin, who narrates with a style that’s a mix of sardonic wit and knowing irony. He’s a Gen Z kid, basically. Jamie has the ability to see dead people, “but not like that movie with Bruce Willis,” he hastens to add. He’s the son of Tia, a literary agent who, through a series of calamitous circumstances, is close to losing the family’s livelihood. Her brother, Jamie’s Uncle Harry, is in a home suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s. His care bleeds whatever income Tia gets from her business. But she takes solace in her son, her off-and-on lover, NYPD detective Liz Dutton, and maybe too much wine. Jamie’s abilities come to their aid, though. While he’s only able to see and speak to the dead for a short while before they fade away, whenever he asks them a question, they have to answer truthfully. This comes in handy when Tia’s sole money-maker, author Regis Thomas, pops his clogs while working on the manuscript for the book that would save the business.

If only all of Jamie’s contacts with the dead were as lucrative. When Liz runs into trouble at her department, she needs the boy’s help in solving a big case, where the main suspect, a serial bomber known as “Thumper” is found dead by suicide. There’s one last bomb out there, and Liz needs its location to save her career, as well as the lives of innocent people. This is when the horror comes into play, because Thumper is reluctant to tell the truth. Jamie and his family find themselves up against a force that is more powerful that death itself.

Later follows Jamie, Tia, and Liz over a period of ten years or so. Jamie becomes a young man, still grappling with his identity; Liz and Tia have numerous fallings-out, with secrets and betrayal sapping the love out of their relationship. A final desperate throw of the dice from Liz leaves Jamie facing the monster that’s been haunting him for many years. It’s a brutal but necessary conflict in which there can only be one winner.

Stephen King (photo: WRBO.org)

Reading Stephen King is, to me, like slipping on a pair of comfortable shoes. He’s been around for practically all of my readling life, and while most of would agree that his current output lacks anything that comes close to his classics (The Stand, It, The Shining, ‘Salem’s Lot), there is always much to enjoy and examine whenever he publishes a new book. Writers swear by his non-fiction masterpiece, On Writing, and I would be in agreement here. I love that book, and relish picking it up everytime. As infuriating as The Dark Tower can be at the end, it’s still a monumental piece of fantasy literature, one that follows King around in many of his books. There could be elements of his multiverse in Later, but I’d have to read it a second time to work that one out. Still, there is at least one reference in Later to an event that happens in It, so I might not be far off the mark.

Later is an excellent book, and at the end, King pulls of a major surprise that’s going to polarise a lot of readers. But this is Stephen King; he’s not about to go all soft on us at this late stage in his career. At least I hope he’s not.

The Magdalene Reliquary by Gary McAvoy

Hot off the heels from reading The Magdalene Deception, I found myself wanting to immediately carry on with book two of the series. So, after reading and reviewing three other books, two for NetGally and one for pleasure, I figured it was time to laze away a few hours with the secretive world of the Vatican Archives and the curious one of Fr Michael Dominic and his motley crew of talented friends and assistants. I was happy I did, because I thoroughly enjoyed The Magdalene Reliquary.

Dominic had his faith in the Catholic Church’s teachings and philosophies sorely tested in Deception. Not only that, but he and his journalist friend, Hana Sinclair, barely escaped with their lives. You would forgive both of them for wanting an easy life, and staying away from documents of dubious origins. For the most part, this works well. Dominic’s mentor, Cardinal Petrini, is now Secretary of State, having usurped the boo-hiss villain Dante and sent him to Argentina, with the pope’s blessing, of course. But Dante isn’t one for taking this lying down, and very soon he’s aligned himself once again with the ultra-nationalist group, the Novi Ustasha, led now by Ivan Govic, the son of the man Dominic killed (in self-defence, it must be said) in the previous book. Dante wants his position back, and he’s not above resorting to simple blackmail and turning a blind eye to murder.

The quest this time involves a box that contains a relic from the time of Christ. Once more there is a connection to Mary Magdalene; and once more the origins of this relic could turn the Catholic Church on its head. So far so very similar to author Gary McAvoy’s debut in the series. But McAvoy ups the stakes nicely, placing his characters in mortal danger quite early in the book. If you’re claustrophobic you might find the descent into the caves of France a touch disconcerting, especially when a gang of right-wing terrorists turn up with enough explosives to blow our heroes to Kingdom Come. Not only do Dominic, Hana, and co. have to deal with secret mysteries and bad faith actors in the Vatican, but they have a new adversary: Dmitry Kharkov is your typical Russian oligarch, with friends in high and low places. He wants whatever is in that box so he can add it to his collection of priceless art and religious iconography. He’s a bad guy and more than a match for our heroes.

When I read the first book in this series, my thoughts went back to a television miniseries called The Word, based on the bestselling novel by Irving Wallace. I watched it back in the day. It was about a new gospel, written by James the Just, the brother of Jesus, and it maintained that Jesus didn’t die on the cross but survived for a good number of years before ascending into heaven. It’s worth checking out, with a three hour cut available on YouTube. This book, The Magdalene Reliquary, brought to mind the works of Morris West, in particular The Shoes of the Fisherman. I was always fascinated by the inner workings of the Vatican City, and while West’s book is less about conspiracy and more about politics, McAvoy’s book could almost be seen as a companion piece.

Gary McAvoy (photo: reedsy.com)

The supporting characters come into their own in Reliquary, with special attention to the engaging trio of Swiss Guards. This sometimes come at a cost to Hana’s character development, but she does have her moments to shine: she knows all the right people. This book has everything that made the first book a great read, and then some. I do wish, though, that the dialogue was less clunky and expository, but I cannot fault Gary McAvoy for leading us through all the research he did for his series. I am now seriously excited to see how the trilogy comes to a close with The Magdalene Veil.

Silvers Hollow by Patrick R. Delaney

Any time I don’t have a watch on my wrist, I am conscious of its absence. It’s a lot simpler to look at my watch than it is to reach for my phone and get the time from there. I’ve always worn a watch and I feel close to naked if I am, for whatever reason, not wearing one. I suppose I’m like most people in that I need to know what time it is, what day it is, and–in these pandemic times–what month it is. So imagine waking up one day with no recollection of any of these mundane facts. That would be scary, right?

The main character in Patrick R. Delaney‘s latest novel, Silvers Hollow, faces such a bizarre and disconcerting situation. She is anonymous to the reader, remaining unnamed throughout the book, and despite having some memories, she is practically anonymous to herself. The premise is a simple one, if deceptively so. A woman wakes up on the platform of a deserted train station, with the train she may or may not have been on pulling away. She has no memory of how she got there, or where she is–or what time it is. Leaving the station she meets the first of the supporting characters that drift in and out of the narrative. The woman finds herself in the back of Officer Smith’s ancient police car, and he takes her on a strange and meandering journey through what seems to be her childhood town of Silvers Hollow.

Nostalgia ain’t what it used it be, the saying goes, and this particular trip down memory lane is anything but comforting. Delaney’s main character is put through the wringer, emotionally and physically. Silvers Hollow itself seems stuck in time, with none of the modern amenities you would see and take for granted today. And it’s always dark. The story, as it unfolds, leaves the reader and the woman without any light at all. There is a reason for this, but you need to stick the course to find out. Meanwhile, the woman has to contend with the mystery of why she is where she is, and what, if anything, her family has to do with her predicament.

The people she meets on her journey are equally as scared, but of what, they can’t or won’t say. This adds to the sense of menace and dread that permeates the book. Delaney’s decision to allow the reader to follow closely beside his main character is an excellent one. All throughout the book I felt the same things the woman felt. It was like being a companion to someone else’s dream, and it wasnt a comfortable experience at all. But I kept reading because, like the woman, I wanted answers.

Patrick Delaney (source: Goodreads)

Silvers Hollow makes full use of its brief running time, coming in a couple of pages shy of 190. But don’t let its brevity fool you: there’s a lot going on here, and nothing is what it seems. Patrick R. Delaney has crafted a well-written, atmospheric, psychological horror story. The end is both dystopian and apocalyptic, and you’ll never ever want to have a dream like it.

NetGalley and the publishers of Silvers Hollow provided me with an ARC in return for an honest review. I thank them for the opportunity. The book will be published June 1, 2021, and is available to pre-order.

Red Harvest Moon (The Wandering Knife Book 1) by Miles Hurt

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is one of my very favourite John Carpenter movies. I’d probably rank it slightly higher than Halloween (don’t @ me), mainly because I’m an action film fan. Made on a low budget, AoP13 packed a lot of thrills and set-pieces in its lean running time. It was set in a confined space and over a few hours. I loved the format and tightness of the screenplay (a feature of much of Carpenter’s early work), that still gave time for some decent character scenes.

All of which brings me to the book I’m reviewing here. Red Harvest Moon is the opening volume of a debut epic fantasy series, The Wandering Knife, by author Miles Hurt. Heavily influenced by Japanese folklore, Hurt’s main character is Ren. He was once a Loyal Knife, swearing allegience to king and country, until a rash decision almost cost him his life, but which instead resulted in his exile. He became The Wandering Knife, travelling the length and breadth of the land, with his companion and friend Crimp, robbing people and villages to keep his head above water. He’s not about making friends; he’s more about staying alive.

The book begins with the pair of brigands coming up on two more men who they see as easy prey. It turns out that the men have barely survived an attack by a race of human-like creatures called ghuls. These monsters hail from far-off Urizan and are sworn enemies of the people of Soren. They have been quiet for a long time, but are now deep into Ren’s territory and are terrorising innocent villages. They are led by Krond, whose blood is a mix of human and ghul, and is practically unstoppable. Ren and Crimp eventually aid the two men in fighting off Krond and his ghuls, but one of the men is killed. The survivor, Drunn, pleads with Ren and Crimp to help him warn the villagers of Puttle that death is on its way. Krond is left maimed after Ren’s innate ability with the sword takes an eye–he swears revenge on our Wandering Knife.

All this happens in the first couple of chapters, and makes the remaining narrative compelling action-packed. Any fan of epic fantasy will be familiar with how the first book of any series will take its time to introduce characters, settings, and conflicts. Often there are chapters where nothing much happens at all; just a lot of travelling and talking, mainly. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this: my favourite fantasy series of all time, Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, devotes whole sections of its ten volumes to characters walking and telling each other stories. But it’s a breath of fresh air that Miles Hurt doesn’t go down this route just yet. His judicious use of brief flashbacks and character dynamics more than set the scene in Red Harvest Moon.

Miles Hurt

Basically what we have here is a siege novel, which is what reminded me of Carpenter’s movie. The action takes plain primarily in Puttle and its surroundings, with Ren, Crimp, and Drunn trying to convince the villagers and its reeve that their lives are in danger if they don’t up sticks and desert their homes. Not everyone wants to leave: it’s Harvest time and the village are preparing a feast, and some don’t trust Ren and Crimp (Drunn has history with the village, so his support is also untrustworthy). The men have a job on their hands to keep themselves and the villagers alive. Ren and Crimp also debate whether or not they should cut and run. For a fantasy novel, the stakes are lowkey, concentrated as they are on the village and the people that live there. Over the course of this book, Miles Hurt introduces us to characters that, should they survive their encounter with evil, open up the land of Soren and beyond for future novels in the series.

The nomadic hero and his companions are features of Japanese folklore, bringing to mind the legends of the samurai. Here we have not seven, but three “samurai”. I look forward to seeing this team expand as the series goes on. Some will live; others won’t. It’s the nature of the Great Circle, as Ren learns from his father: “Though you are a Wandering Knife, you still walk within the Great Circle. Find purpose in that.” Purpose, indeed.

Bottom line: this is a great start to what I think will be a series to look out for, and Miles Hurt is definitely an author to follow.

The Magdalene Deception by Gary McAvoy

One of the greatest pleasures of my life was a trip to Rome with a dear friend in October 2012. (Remember being able to travel to different countries? Oh the joy! How we all miss right now what we used to take for granted!) My travelling companion and I managed to take a free tour of the Vatican while we were there. It was breath-taking, awe-inspiring, and full of tourists like ourselves. The Sistine Chapel has to be seen with human eyes to be fully appreciated. And of course, being an Irishman, Catholicism will be forever ingrained in my ethos despite it being a bad smell I’d like to get rid of. But still — the Vatican: just wow!

The Magdalene Deception is the first in a series of books called The Magdalene Chronicles, and it is written by Gary McAvoy, a military veteran, a tech entrepreneur, and a dealer in rare manuscripts, with all of these hats vying for attention in his debut fiction novel. And for the most part, he juggles these balls successfully.

Michael Dominic is a Jesuit priest: young, brash, handsome, and loyal to his father figure, the Brazilian cardinal Enrico Petrini. His calling to the Church is more out of a sense of said loyalty than spiritual devotion, but it does provide him with an outlet for his other passion. Father Dominic is a medievalist, and he has secured a great position within the Vatican, working as an archivist in its massive library, He could spend all the years of his life poring over the literally millions of documents from centuries past and he would still not see them all. But chance gives him his first encounter with the many secrets the Vatican hides and indeed controls.

Many of us will be familiar with Dan Brown’s megasellers The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons. If you’ve not read the books, it’s probable you’ve seen the movies adapted from them. They’re potboilers and not meant to be taken seriously despite them fueling a ton of conspiracy theories over the last couple of decades. They’re fun reads, and that’s that. The Magdalene Deception trods a similar path, in that there is alleged evidenciary proof of a document that threatens to turn the Catholic Church and its followers into a tailspin of denial shock. The Jesuit priest stumbles on this document by accident and this sets off a chain of events that force the novel’s main antagonist, the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Dante, to use whatever means possible to suppress the investigation.

Running alongside the main plot is yet another investigation, this time concerning Hana Sinclair, a journalist who’s looking into the connection between Nazi plundered gold and a shadow group who help return this fortune to those it was taken from. Her contacts include the president of France, her grandfather, and Father Dominic’s mentor, Cardinal Petrini. The role of wartime pope, Pius XII, is examined and criticised for his alleged inactions during the Nazi occupation of Europe and the subsequent Holocaust. The involvement of the Croatian far-right militia, the Ustasha, echoes into the novel’s plot, too, and the powers-that-be in the Vatican have their hands dirty with them. There is a lot going in here.

Gary McAvoy

Father Dominic and Hana join forces when it becomes plain to both that their individual investigations have a common purpose. While I always enjoy conspiracy theories in fictional form, I was drawn to Hana’s plotline more. It led me down a rabbit hole of espionage and subterfuge that fascinated me. I liked how Gary McAvoy worked historical figures into a fictional novel. I love when writers do this.

McAvoy also impressed me with his historical research. The novel is peppered with facts and figures, and it is all the better for it. What is lacks, however, is a sense of danger for the main characters. Yes, the matters at hand are urgent and so much is at stake, but I never anxious for the priest and the journalist., regardless of the danger they put themselves in. I was more worried for the supporting characters, especially Hana’s cousin, Karl the Swiss Guard, and Cardinal Petrini. (Note: Swiss Guards are well-trained bad-asses–every state should have their own, not just the Vatican City.) But there is genuine intrigue. I did want to know what was going to happen to the document at the end, and I was reasonably satisfied with the novel’s denouement. This is a plus for me, because I want to read the next book, The Magdalene Reliquary. I want to see what McAvoy comes up with next. Both books are available for those with a Kindle Unlimited account, and you’ll read them and be entertained and educated for a few days. You can’t ask better than that.