My Year in Books and Sudoku: 2020

As we’re just weeks away from throwing 2020 into the trashcan, many websites and media outlets are doing what they can to throw a positive spin on what has been a tumultous time for citizens of this planet of ours. It’s a hard task, I know. Many of you reading this will have been directly affected by the pandemic that wreaked havoc on the way we live our lives. Some of you will have lost someone dear, and are still unable to grieve properly because of national and international social restrictions. Life hasn’t been fair, and while we see a chink of light in the near distant future, we’re still anxious as hell.

(Image: Literary Hub)

But we found ways to cope. For me, while I was apart from my family in the US, I gained solace in three things. I put a lot of effort into cooking and baking, not just for me but for my family in Ireland. Cooking for others is a sure-fire way of showing love and gratitude, and it’s something I’ve done quite a lot of this year. The second thing to give me comfort just when I needed it is a YouTube website called Cracking The Cryptic. Thanks to an article from The Guardian in May, I came across two English gentlemen, Simon Anthony and Mark Goodliffe, who live solve complex puzzles twice daily. During the course of this year, they picked up so many subscribers to their channel that they now have over 303,000 followers, with one particular video attaining over 2.1 million views. They work hard on their content, and are a joy to watch. Because of them, I now attempt theNew York Times Hard Sudoku a few times a week. We take our comfort where we find it, and if it ends up being good for our brain, well, all the better.

Thirdly, and just as important, there wasn’t a time when I wasn’t reading a book. I started the year finishing off Stephen Donaldson’s Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and began my journey to more than 40 books read in a calender year. Not a record, though: a few years back I managed over 50. One of the highlights of my reading year was James S.A. Corey’s science-fiction series The Expanse. I read books two through eight consecutively, touching nothing else until I was done. Now, like all Expanse fans, I wait for the new season to drop on Amazon in a matter of days, and the release of the ninth and final book in the series, Leviathan Falls, next year. Right now, I’m reading Ring Shout, P. Djèlí Clark‘s new novella. I’ll post a review of this brilliant piece of dark fantasy in a future blog.

Throughout the short life of this blog, I’ve written about many of the books and authors I’ve encountered this year. Very few, if any, let me down. And I read everything I started, including the bad boy of the bunch, Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat Mystery, a book with a reveal so racist and disgusting, it will be a long time before I try anything from that era again. But it did lead me to Martin Edwards and his Rachel Savernake series, so at least some good came out of it. I enjoyed books mainly in the mystery, thriller, and sci-fi/fantasy genre. It was the kind of year where I needed the escapism, and I doubt 2021 will change my approach. Hooking up with NetGalley allows me to request books pre-publication, and I have Caldwell Turnbull’s hotly anticpated follow-up to The Lesson, No Gods, No Monsters, to look forward to early in the New Year.

So, do I have any favourites, any book I would urge you to read right now, out of all the ones I’ve read this year so far? Well, I’ve written about Anthony Horowitz twice already, so his books and series are always a good place to start. Mary Robinette Howal’s Lady Astronaut series will always have a special place in my heart, combining science fiction and alternate history with some whip-smart and hard-hitting social commentary. Get on these if you haven’t already. Steve Cavanagh continues to knock it out of the park with his Eddie Flynn series: Fifty-Fifty was yet another stunning legal thriller that very much kept to the high standards of previous instalments. Shout-outs to Kellye Garrett and Rachel Howzell Hall for providing me and their fans with a hefty dose of LA-centred crime fiction. Their characters and prose kept me up and entertained many a long night this year. I especially loved Rachel’s And Now She’s Gone, but I can’t wait to see what Kellye has in store for us in 2021.

For the year that was in it, Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe quartet was a dream to read, and a nightmare to contemplate. I still want Rudy to cook all my dinners, though.

I hope to read at least 50 books in the forthcoming year, and it will give me great pleasure to talk about them on this website. I would appreciate the company, but with the world being the way it is right now, we’re all we’ve got and we need to stick together. Let’s live, love, read, and enjoy, and never stop caring for each other. Well done for making it through so far. I’ll see you on the other side.

Amid Rage by Joel Burcat

Mike Jacobs is a young, up-and-coming litigator in environmental law, working for the Department of Environmental Protection in the state of Pennsylvania. He knows his job, is diligent, and can go rogue now and again, working behind his boss’ back and against standard protocol to ensure the law protecting the land and the citizens that live on it are safe-guarded. Professionally he’s got what it takes. Personally, though, his life is messy.

Amid Rage is the second book in PA author Joel Burcat’s Mike Jacobs series, the first being Drink To Every Beast, which was published in May, 2019. I’ve yet to read the first book, but happily Amid Rage is enough of a stand-alone novel that doesn’t require the reader needing too much prior information: Joel Burcat fills in the blanks early on in proceedings, allowing you to plow ahead with what is quite a page-turning story.

It beings violently, with the death of a mining inspector: he’s burned to death in his home by the villain of the piece, Ernie Rinati, the owner of Rhino, a mining company. Rinati isn’t getting what he wants from the DEP, with too many conditions placed on his operations, rendering him unable to make the kind of money he feels he deserves. He’s not above pressuring homeowners into buying up their property at knock-down prices, either. Basically he’s a vile human being, valuing the life of his three-legged dog Butch over anything or anyone else. Unfortunately, though, he’s a one-note and rather cartoonish villain.

Joel Burcat’s speciality, however, is in the court room. A practicing environmental lawyer himself, the Philadelphia native brings his experience to the table, giving us courtside seats to the legal wrangles regarding permits and temporary restraining orders (TROs). All of this wouldn’t be half as exciting if there wasn’t a decent story to tell, and Burcat has one, thank goodness. At the centre of the plot is a piece of land that Rinati wants to mine on. In his way are people who own homes on that land. The DEP has allowed Rinati some leeway, but not enough. The homeowners resist his efforts and have hired an inexperienced lawyer, Miranda Clymer, to lead their lawsuit. Mike’s orders are to act as observer only, but a startling bit of sexual blackmail forces Mike to take a more active role than his department allows. (I did mention that Mike’s personal life is messy as hell, right?)

So he’s on his own, although he does, in all fairness, inspire a couple of close friends, Ben and Nicky, to help him out. If it wasn’t for the fact that Rinati is obviously insane, and has henchmen that would make Darth Vader question his choice in allies, Mike would have an easy time of it. But no! Danger lurks in every chapter of this fast-moving, and for the most part, engrossing thriller. Saying Mike Jacobs is just a lawyer is like saying Indiana Jones is just an archaeologist. Mike’s pursuit of the truth gets him and his friends into a lot of trouble, with Nicky especially feeling the full force of Rinati’s vengeance. Parts were uncomfortable to read, but in the end I see what Burcat was aiming for. In fairness, I would’ve preferred if he drew his characterisation of women better;in many instances men, including Mike Jacobs, spent far too much energy ogling their physical characteristics to the point of fantasism and wishful thinking. They’re strong characters in their own right, but I felt they needed their own agency rather than being at the beck and call and the subject of abuse from their male counterparts. Still, it was good to see such abusers get what they deserve.

Joel Burcat

Burcat brings the story to life with principled and unprincipled attorneys. I like how Mike has to deal with people from his past who haven’t made his life and career any easier for him. Watch out for Judge Diaz and Sidney Feldman. It’s in the courtroom scenes that this novel really comes to life. The action scenes are well done, too. But it’s the personal bits, where Mike questions his choices in love and romance, that need a bit more spark and care. I like Mike a lot. He has a lot to learn, but he’s willing to work hard, and he makes it up as he goes sometimes. Which is what most of us are doing right now, I guess. I give Burcat praise for writing a book that I pretty much enjoyed reading. I expect him to get better the more he writes and publishes.

I thank NetGalley and the publishers for supplying me with a copy of Amid Range prior to publication (Feb 2021) in return for an honest review.

The Daniel Hawthorne Series by Anthony Horowitz

I was delighted to recently read that Amazon had renewed Alex Rider for a second season, after its big budget launch first in Europe in June 2020, then in North America later in the year. I found it to be tremendous fun and happily recommended the show to people who asked what it was like. Anthony Horowitz is the creator of Alex Rider and has, to date, published thirteen novels in the series, as well as some short stories and additional chapters available online. A mightily prolific author, Mr Horowitz doesn’t stop there. I mentioned in my very first post on this website that he’s had authorised runs with well-known classic fictional characters Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. I’ve read these, and I adore them. I reviewed Moonflower Murders previously.

Anthony Horowitz (Image: telegraph.co.uk)

This time around, though, I want to draw your attention to a pair of novels that accomplish something unique. The Word is Murder and The Sentence is Death feature former Met detective Daniel Hawthorne who moonlights as a police consultant when the Force needs an extra pair of eyes for murder cases that defy logic. Hawthorne has made a few enemies from his time as a detective, and comes up against a lot of resistance from former colleagues. But he has an ace up his sleeve, and that’s the author himself. Anthony Horowitz goes all meta on his readers, placing himself side-by-side with Hawthorne as they solve murders so complex they’d make your eyes water.

What Mr Horowitz does is quite simple. In The Word is Murder, the author is approached by Hawthorne, who worked as a (fictional) police consultant for his real life BBC show Injustice. Hawthorne is looking for “Tony” to follow him around and write about him as he solves a case for the Met. Hawthorne won’t take no for an answer and kind of strong-arms the author into doing his bidding. The pair get off to a ropey start, with Hawthorne possessing very little in what you might call people skills. He’s rude, arrogant, very secretive, and tight with his money. But what he lacks in sociability, he more than makes up with his astute skills of deduction. Think Sherlock Holmes, but more obnoxious.

(Image: littletimetoread.today)

What I really enjoyed about this book, and the one that followed, is how Mr Horowitz mixes his real life in with the fictional one. He’s working on Foyle’s War and the screenplay he was writing at the time for the sequel to Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin, and Hawthorne’s interference plays havoc with the writer’s means of living. One funny sequence in TWIM has Hawthorne gatecrash a meeting “Tony” is having with both Spielberg and Peter Jackson.

The case itself is an ingenious whodunnit. Diana Cowper walks into a local undertaker’s office and plans her own funeral. She is found dead that night, strangled in her own home. The questions are how? and why? Similar to Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple novels, the suspects are plentiful, and the solution is extreme but logical. Not a clue is missed by Hawthorne, and when “Tony” thinks he has the answer, Hawthorne takes great pleasure in proving him wrong. The relationship is more Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce than Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke. Still, Tony and Hawthorne see the case out to its end, and the author publishes their joint efforts.

The Sentence is Death continues their collaboration with yet another murder case, with their personal relationship no closer to being BFFs. This time the unfortunate victim in a high-profile divorce lawyer who’s beaten to death at home: yet another locked-room mystery. Who doesn’t love these? It’s a supremely enjoyable crime caper in which we get to learn more about Hawthorne’s past, and that despite appearances and behaviour, he’s a man of honour and bound to the truth, no matter whose toes he steps on. There is peril for Anthony Horowitz, too. He gets into more than his fair share of scrapes and too-close-for-comfort escapes from certain death. Once again, I enjoyed how his fictional life collided with real-life events. And the repartee between the two characters is ripe with zingers and foreshadowing.

(Image: thepigeonhole.com)

A third book is on the way for 2021, and while I’ve yet to dive into Mr Horowitz’ Alex Rider ouevre, I am very content with his Hawthorne and Horowitz series. He’s an amazing writer, who makes the job of writing for a living look so easy.

P.S.: When I first joined Twitter in 2009, my feed was full of writers and bloggers. Now, due to present political and environmental reasons, it’s full of lawyers, journalists, and human rights activists. Therefore I have set up a Twitter account solely for this blog and I aim to focus on the world of books and the people who write and write about them. You can follow at here, AardvarkianReviews. Thank you. And thank you for reading.

The Thirteenth Post

I really want to read The Count of Monte Cristo. Don’t ask me why; but from centuries of classic adventure fiction, Alexander Dumas’ story has always captivated me. I’ve seen a couple of adaptations in recent years — the Jim Caviezel/Guy Pearce movie from 2002 springs to mind — but rarely is the full story told. And if you know anything about me, when it comes to books, I need the full story. So I’ll get a good copy of this classic for myself this Christmas. Hopefully I’ll have better luck making my way through this than I had with Hugo’s Les Miserables (I made it about 50 or so pages in before I put on the musical instead –not the movie musical, but a West End cast recording).

(Image: Handcrafted Hollow Book Safes by BookRooks)

So I’ve decided to take a couple of baby steps into the arena. I set up a second Twitter account that will deal specifically with all things books, book reviews, arts and entertainment. I set up a Facebook page for the blog, as well as a second Instagram account. I signed up to NetGalley and am now reading a book for an upcoming review. It’s an environmental legal thriller called Amid Rage, by Joel Burcat, the second in his Mike Jacobs series. I’m liking it so far. I have so many books on my TBR shelf that I didn’t know where to start, but I set my stall with this one. The great thing about NetGalley is you can request to read a book before its publication, and if the book’s publisher likes the cut of your jib, you get access to an ARC in return for an honest review. Sounds like a good deal. It means I get to read for pleasure and a review. It passes the time nicely.

(Image: Goodreads)

A little over six weeks ago I posted on this blog for the first time in years. I deleted all the old content because it didn’t service my need any more, but I wanted to do something with what little space I forged for myself online. I read many book blogs on the interenet. I read many books, full stop. So I decided to join in on the action. It’s not so much as to pass the time, but to write about the books I love to read. As of right now, I have closed the covers of 40 books this year so far. I enjoyed pretty much all of them, some of which I’ve covered in the last twelve posts on this blog. If anything, 2020 gave me and many others more time to read and write about reading. Hence the title of my blog.

I hope to have people read what I write, but I realise book blogging is a flooded market. That’s fine, I’m not about usurping other bloggers who have been doing this a lot longer and probably better than me. But this is my little corner of the universe. I want to make it as comfortable for myself and my readers as possible. No gimmicks. No influencing other than a recommendation you read a book or series that I’ve chosen to review. The only experience I have is close to fifty years of reading. That’s got to count for something, right?

So, come along for the ride, if you so desire. I promise an open and entertaining forum for those of us who love books and the people who write them. I’m here for them all. I hope you will be, too. Stay tuned!

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

Sentient Artificial Intelligence (AI) is all the rage nowadays. Actually, that assessment is wrong. Machines that think independently for themselves have been a staple of science fiction literature and film for many, many decades. From Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), to HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), robots and computers that shirk off their programming, creating havoc for their creators and humankind as a whole, have been around for as long as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What is true to say, that since James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) knocked seven shades of you-know-what out of the sci-fi genre, writers and producers have gone back through annals of content and come up with a fresh approach to the whole “when machines go bad” concept.

Martha Wells takes an altogether different approach in her sequence of four novellas, The Murderbot Diaries. She posits what might happen if “bad machines go good”. Beginning with All Systems Red, Murderbot itself is a cyborg Security Unit (SecUnit) who has found some way to override its original programming, its governor module. Haunted by a past mission that went distastrously and fatally wrong, Murderbot would rather binge on cheap visual dramas than take part in further missions. However, owing to a string of events, Murderbot aligns itself with a scientific expedition group, and finds that it cares about what happens to them more than it wants to. He resorts to old programming in order to save them from rogue scientists and uncovers a conspiracy that may provide it with answers to its past actions.

(Image: theverge.com)

All Systems Red caught me completely by surprise when I read it first. Fun and funny, with bursts of impressive and intense actions scenes in its 140 or so pages, I immediately went out and bought the other three in the series for my Kindle. Artificial Condition finds Murderbot, and his new found freedom, on board an empty cargo vessel, along with a new companion, a transport AI it christens ART (Asshole Research Transport). Murderbot disguises itself as an augmented human and takes on a contract, acting as a security guard to a group of technologists who are travelling to the same area where Murderbot’s malfuntion occured. Acessing its memories isn’t easy because much of what it should be able to remember has been erased. As with the first novella, Murderbot’s expertise comes into play when treachery is afoot. ART helps it out, and the two AIs make an engaging buddy-buddy duo, with Murderbot finding out with every turn exactly what being free entails.

Rogue Protocol continues Murderbot’s investigations of GrayCris, who appear to be illegally hoarding valuable remains of alien civilisations. It lands on a terrraforming base called Milu and is immediately up against a couple of shady security consultants and another AI, Miki, who’s as cheerful as Murderbot is grumpy. They are attacked and once again, Murderbot has to use all its skills, new and old, to help its new friends and survive nefarious attempts to hack its programming. More often than not, it comes to the aid of its legal owner, Dr, Mensah, who, from the first novella, granted Murderbot with autonomy. What it does with this decision, and how it rationalises its actions, form the very basis of this deceptively action-packed space opera.

Murderbot (Image: Barnes & Noble)

The final novella in the sequence is Exit Strategy. Pursued by the authorities for being a rogue SecUnit, Murderbot is wanted, dead or alive. It continues to chase its own agenda, but finding that it can’t help but care what happens to the humans who have placed their trust in it, Murderbot has to protect Dr. Mensah, who’s in as much danger as it is. It’s Murderbot and Mensah against the evildoers of GrayCris, with the truth about what really happened in Murderbot’s past coming to light.

Murderbot has a unique and distinctly snarky internal voice. It constantly questions the decisions the humans around it makes, rolling its eyes as they flounder from one stupid mess of their own making into another. And yet, it will always help them when it comes to the crunch, despite the threat to its own existence. It struggles with the concept of friendship and companionship, but can see the benefits of both. It is endearing and entertaining to follow Murderbot on its adventures, and knowing that a full-length novel, Network Effect, was published this year (with another due out in 2021), is enough to keep me in its thrall. This series of four novellas should and will appeal to science fiction fans looking for a new sort of hero: not human, but full of the ideals about what it means to be human. These stories are a joy to read, and I’m so glad that there are more to come.

Martha Wells (Image: Paperback Paris)

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

Space 1999, a great (and sometimes not-so-great) British TV show from the 1970’s, created an extraordinary concept in which, due to a nuclear explosion on the Moon’s surface, our lunar neighbour was wrenched out of orbit and flung into the outer regions of our solar system and beyond. This was devastating for the Commander Koenig and the crew of Moonbase Alpha. Over the course of two seasons (the first being the most superior), the Moon encounters black holes and space warps (the science is cagey, but let’s run with it), and all manners of aliens and danger. It was fun while it lasted. The full pilot is available on YouTube and is definitely worth watching. But little is made of the effect of the Moon’s disappearance from Earth’s orbit, and the likely geological impact it would have had on our planet. The Broken Earth trilogy, written by N.K. Jemisin, imagines, to much acclaim, the cataclysmic events that would befall our planet where something to happen to the Moon.

N.K. Jemisin (Image: The Verge)

I’m jumping the gun somewhat here. We don’t learn about the Moon until much later in the trilogy, which consists of The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stolen Sky. On what may or may not be our Earth in the very far future, there is the Stillness: a supercontinent that endures eons long events known as Seasons. These can be volcanic eruptions, massive earthquakes, the kind of natural disasters that have caused extended periods of drought and famine. It’s climate change taken to its extreme, and very much a warning to us in the here and now. Citizens of the Stillness hide out in Comms, only to rebuilt that which was destroyed. Orogenes protect the Stillness: these are humans who possess an uncanny ability to control the ground beneath them, and as we learn later the sky above. Orogenes can literally move mountains, but they are feared and hated despite what they do to help save humanity. They are trained at the Fulcrum, a school that both educates and brutalises orogenes-in-waiting. Not all survive the process, as their teachers, Guardians, run a harsh regime.

(Image: arstechnica.com)

The Fifth Season opens with a woman named Essun who discovers that her husband has murdered their baby son and has now disappeared with their daughter. Using different points of view (third person, first person, and even second person), N.K. beautifully creates a web of narrative intricacy. We read about Damaya, an orogene-in-training, arriving at the Fulcrum; and Syenite who, along with her more experienced handler, Alabaster, is embarking on her first mission. As we find ourselves drawn into these separate narratives, N.K. drops a little twist: they are all the same woman at different points in her life. We work out where each story takes place, and we also have a front row seat to the abuse and oppression orogenes endure. It’s not supposed to be comfortable.

The Obelisk Gate looks upwards. All around the world, hanging in the skies of the Stillness, are huge crystals called Obelisks. Following from the climactic events of the first book, when Syenite draws from power from one such obelisk in order to protect herself and her child, the story shares perspective with Nassun, Essun’s daughter, who believes that she and her people have suffered enough injustice and enslavement and humanity is to blame. It and the Stillness deserve to be torn apart for good. She intends to use her considerable power to bring about the end of all things. Her mother means to find and stop her. Both sides of this apocalytic battle are aided and abetted by the Stone Eaters, beings that can travel through rock itself, and can trace their origin far back to a more advanced society: one that in pursuit of power created the obelisks and knocked the Moon from its orbit.

The Stone Sky brings the trilogy to a close, but in a startling and literally earth-shattering way. The past, present, and future collide when we learn of how and why the obelisks were created, and how the race of slaves created to power the crystals both saved and damned the Earth. In its defence, Mother Earth herself had enough of what humanity was doing to her. We had made Gaia our slave and She rebelled against us. It was what we deserved. Nassun and Essen are on a collision course and the Earth is on the side of the younger woman, who wants to bring the Moon back and crash it onto the surface of the planet. The stakes couldn’t be any higher.

(image: theverge.com)

The Broken Earth Trilogy is science fiction and fantasy seated at the top end of both tables. N.K. creates characters and landscapes that are recognisable and fantastical. Rooted in all three books is the notion of power and what we will do to attain and keep it. In order to have our way, we find it necessary to subjugate and dominate individuals and races. But when the planet we live on decides that it’s time for change and wholesale annihilation, we live on borrowed time. It takes bravery and sacrifice to prevail against such insurmountable odds. N.K. Jemisin is the first Black author to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel with The Fifth Season. She then proceeded to follow up that win with a further two awards in the category with the remaining novels in the trilogy. That in itself should tell you something. If you haven’t read them yet, there is really no excuse not to. The best fiction tells us something about ourselves as a person and as a human being. N.K.’s trilogy not only tells us what would happen if we cared any less about how we live, but gives us a way to heal the world around us. We don’t need superpowers; we just need to care. And act now.

N.K. Jemisin has embarked on a new trilogy, The Great Cities, beginning with the publication this year of The City We Became. Instead of Earth being alive, its cities that are sentient. I look forward to reading this. Also I would advise people to check out her short story collection, How Long ’til Black Future Month. It’s superb.

Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

In a year where I did little else but watch Netflix, bake goodies, and read until I my eyes refused to cooperate with me, I have to say that I’ve had it better than some. I enjoy reading, and part of what makes the experience more pleasurable is picking up gems like Lindsay Ellis’ debut novel, Axiom’s End.

(Image: Chicago Review of Books)

Lindsay is a film critic and video essayist. Her YouTube channel is extremely popular, and her recent couple of videos about fan fiction, the Omegaverse, and her back-and-forths with the lawyer of a successful author in the romance literature genre are informative, entertaining, and come with a warning: Be prepared to back up everything you claim in a court. (This is something that’s become quite relevant in recent weeks.) But I have to admit, until I got word of a new science fiction novel doing the rounds and picking up rave reviews, I never heard of her. I have since rememedied this.

The year is 2007, but it’s not from our history. Axiom’s End is set in an alternate United States where First Contact with an alien species has already occured, but because the US government has attempted to cover it up, very few people are aware it happened. All they know is that within a short space of time, there have been two meteor strikes on American soil. Whistleblower Nils Ortega, via his website, posts redacted documents which, he says, exposes the truth and implicates President George W. Bush as having direct knowledge of the cover-up. Nils is in hiding, and his family are unaware of his whereabouts. His daughter, Cora Sabino, in particular, struggles with life. Living with her Mom and siblings, her car is almost beyond repair, and she just about quits the job her Mom got for her when the second meteor strikes.

Almost straightaway Cora’s family are threatened. Government agents turn up on their doorstep and are taken into custody, with Cora going on the run. She encounters an alien she calls Ampersand, and through a series of events, not all of them comfortable, Cora agrees to become Ampersand’s translator. It’s an alliance fraught with peril, because not only does Cora want her family back safe and sound, she’s not altogether trustful nor understanding of her alien companion’s true motives.

Lindsay Ellis (Image: knowyourmemes.com)

That’s the bare bones of Axiom’s End. But there’s a lot more to it than this. The reader has to play catch-up from page one, but Lindsay’s world-building and playful examination of events nearly a decade and a half ago is masterfully handled. And when the characters are allowed to breathe and take stock, the reader does, too. The relationship between Cora and Ampersand is allowed to evolve at its own pace, despite the breakneck chain of events that pepper each chapter of this engrossing, fun, and thought-provoking novel.

Lindsay says in her recent video essay that she drew from her own experience of fan fiction, particularly Transformers, when putting the plot of Axiom’s End together. I can totally see this, but I would be giving too much of the plot away if I commented any further. It was a pleasure to read, and although my review might seem slight, I genuinely fear for giving too much away. One very minor spoiler I will reveal, however: George W. Bush’s letter of resignation is literary wish-fulfillment. Axiom’s End is book one of a series that Lindsay has called “Nuomena”. I don’t know what this means, except to say I very much look forward to book two.

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson

Fantasy fiction was never really my thing when I was much younger than I am now. Yes, I read a fair amount of science fiction, and I still do. But while I liked the idea of fantasy, for some reason I could never sit down and read anything in the genre, not even Tolkien. We were given The Hobbit to read in school, but I couldn’t take to it. But a memory that sticks with me many decades later is finding a copy of The Power That Preserves in the house I grew up in. The cover of that book hit me, and the blurb at the back intrigued me, but not enough to read it. It was also book three of a trilogy, and I didn’t see the preceding two books lying around.

Stephen R. Donaldon (Image: Barnes & Noble)

Fast forward ten years or so and I’m working in a local hotel and nightclub. A colleague and close friend at the time was, like me, a voracious reader. But while I was mainlining Robert Ludlum thrillers and other books from the genre, this guy was knees-deep in fantasy fiction. He reintroduced me to Stephen R. Donaldson and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. He did so in such a beguiling way, that I decided to stick my toes in the water.

First published in 1977, Lord Foul’s Bane was an instant success for important reasons. It introduced me to a different kind of hero, and ultimately a different type of Hero’s Quest. Covenant himself is a distinctly unlikeable character, but at the outset our sympathies are with him. He’s a successful writer who contracts leprosy, and finds himself an outcast in society, divorced from his wife Joan, and alienated from his young son Roger. He has plenty of reasons to be bitter and hateful. The only thing he holds onto, apart from his cynicism, is his white gold wedding ring. A chance meeting with a beggar on a rare trip into town results in Covenant being hit by a police car and rendered unconscious. When he comes to, he’s not where he should be. Covenant has found himself in The Land.

(Image: medium.com)

Donaldson’s epic series has been described as The Lord of the Rings for adults. This comparison is unfair on both works, but I see why it’s being made. Covenant isn’t in the Land long before he quickly gets his sense of touch back and his body starts to heal itself from its affliction. The euphoria maddens Covenant to the extent that among the first things he does is rape a young woman who tries to help him. Even now, many years later, this is an incident that haunts me. How can you root for a protagonist who commits such a heinous act? The truth is, you can’t, not really. And what Donaldson does well, in my opinion, is to allow this crime to follow Covenant throughout this book and beyond.

The Land is rich with Earthpower, a kind of energy that permeates within every living thing. The girl who helps Covenant, Lena, applies a muddy compound called hurtloam to his wounds, which heals his body if not his mind. His deformed right hand, as well as the presence of his white gold ring, confirms to Lena that Covenant is the reincarnation of Berek Halfhand, a Lord from eons past who saved the Land from the evil Lord Foul, who has been up to his tricks again despite banishment. Covenant, for his part, refuses to believe any of this is real, and thus nothing he says or does carries any consequence. Far from being the Land’s saviour, he styles himself on his unbelief, giving the trilogy its full name: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever.

Donaldson readily uses many of not all of the available tropes employed in the genre of classic fantasy fiction. There is the Hero (Covenant), the Quest (destroy once and for all the threat of Lord Foul and his minions), a place of magic (The Land), the totems of power (the white gold ring, the One Tree, the Staff of Law), mythical creatures (Giants, Ranyhyn, Demondim, Elohim, Forestals, etc), and of course romance, which features heavily in later volumes with the introduction of Covenant’s doctor from our world, Linden Avery. But Donaldson subverts our expectations, and challenges us to put aside our preconceptions. As mentioned above, Covenant is not the hero the Land deserves, but it certainly needs him. As each of his companions (another trope that bears mentioning) regale him with stories of their ancestry and past victories and defeats, the object is to convince Covenant enough to help even when he doesn’t believe any of what he’s told. It’s a hard ask, but Donaldson does it in such a way, giving each of his characters distinctive voices and histories, that even if you feel Covenant may not be up to the job, you desperately want someone to step in and save the day and the Land.

(Image: biblio.co.nz)

Donaldson wrote two trilogies between 1977 and 1983, completing the second chronicles with White Gold Wielder. He completed a two book fantasy series, Mordant’s Need, and a five book science fiction epic, The Gap Cycle, which is an extraordinary piece of work. He also found the time to write some crime fiction under the Reed Stephens pseudonym, The Man Who… But in 2004, he published what was to be first of a quadrilogy, The Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Runes of the Earth. It took me a long time for get to this, but when I found that all four books where in my local library at the time, I borrowed them all and read them through at the end of last year and into the beginning of this one. It helped that before each book begins properly, there is a concise summary of everything that happened before. Maps and a brilliant glossary are also included, both massively helpful because the cast list and place names are plentiful and it’s a complex job following everything.

And this leads me to a very important point I feel I must make. Donaldson’s writing style for these novels in particular is not for everyone. The Land and its citizens are ornate and love their lore and the very nature of storytelling. Donaldson’s use of language is both immersive and off-putting. I found it necessary to put ample time away in order to approach these complex books. Some critics say they’re hard to read, and indeed some passages are long and detailed, so it’s best not to approach these tired or cranky. They are, however, complemented by some stunning actions scenes that take up entire chapters. It’s not just the fate of the characters or the Land that is at stake, it’s the nature of Time and the Universe, too. Lord Foul’s ultimate ambition is to undo Time and bring darkness throughout all existence. The last book of the Chronicles, The Last Dark, is a 550 page race against the clock, and is truly stunning in its resolution. Covenant’s atrocious crime from book one still has a price to exact, one that must be paid in full. The circle must be complete in order for justice to be served. It’s only right.

(Image: amazon.com)

But it is not just about the story; it’s about the Land and all who live in it. Not only are the Giants the real heroes on show here, but the haruchai, a race of warriors that shun magic and weapons but take pride in prowess and stamina, offer the Unbeliever their hard-earned support, and without these and other races, Covenant and Avery would have a chance of defeating Lord Foul. All ten books in the series contain wild magic, victories, defeats, betrayal, death and rebirth; hope where there should be none; love where there really isn’t time; and healing, because that’s what we all need, no matter where we live.

Donaldson continues to write fantasy fiction. He’s two books into another epic saga, The Great God’s War. I’ve read the first one and enjoyed it, but it’s going to take something special to usurp Covenant and the Land from the top of my list.

The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

Given how much of 2020 has progressed so far, I could forgive myself for reading “comfortable” books; the kind that would help me deal with and take me away from this constant feeling of existential dread and anxiety. But if you scroll down my Goodreads list, you will see I’ve read very few books you could describe as “comfortable” (with the greatest respect to authors who cater for that market: it’s much needed). At the end of the day, all the books I’ve read this year so far have captured the essence of humanity: it’s hopes and dreams, its triumphs and failures, its birth and its death. One such book has stood out this year, and is a perfect example of what it takes to be human and to survive against hopeless odds, is The Luminous Dead, the debut novel from American author Caitlin Starling.

Set on another planet, in a far-flung dystopian future, The Luminous Dead is a book about Gyre Price, a potholer who was raised on a mining colony. She lies about her experience and credentials and basically bluffs her way into a high-stakes job offering the kind of money to help her get off-planet and find her mother, who abandoned her years earlier. Gyre has issues, but then again so does her handler, Em, who literally pulls Gyre’s strings from above-ground. Gyre and Em need to trust each other, but it’s plain from the off that they don’t. And this mistrust could get Gyre killed. Or worse: she could become a ghost, destined to haunt the caves until the next expedition comes around.

This isn’t Em’s first attempt to find the rich mineral deposits in these caves. Without giving too much away, Gyre’s handler has other deeply personal reasons in urging her charge downwards and into danger. Constant gear malfunctions, missing supplies, and the supremely creepy presense of Tunnellers, subterranean creatures who dwell in the shadows and can literally pop up anywhere, add to the notion that Gyre might not make it out in one piece, if at all.

The Luminous Dead sticks with Gyre’s POV throughout, without making it a first person narrative. This is a difficult form of storytelling to pull off, the challenge being that the author needs to keep the reader engaged with both the action around the main character and her innermost thoughts. And this won’t be for everyone. Readers expecting a balls-to-the-wall action adventure along the lines of Alien and Neil Marshall’s 2005 horror movie set in a cave, The Descent, will come away feeling short-changed. So it’s important to note that while there are plenty of death-defying sequences within the book, this is equally a two-hander piece of speculative fiction that keeps the story moving forward because we are so invested in Gyre and Em. These are young women, at times working with and against one another, but with a similar endgame in mind. It’s a human thing in times of crises to fall into distrust and disbelief, but when it comes to the crunch, inevitably we have to trust someone, even if that someone is ourself.

Caitlin Starling: The Luminous Dead

The Luminous Dead is rich in atmosphere, and is in equal parts a science fiction thriller, a horror story, a psychological drama, and — yes — a delightfully queer love story. As debuts go, Caitlin Starling has put herself on the map, with her novel nominated for a Locus Award, a Bram Stoker Award, and winner of the Ladies of Horror Fiction Award for Best Debut Novel. She recently released Yellow Jessamine, a dark fantasy novella that I will no doubt read and review in the very near future.

Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe Series

I picked a bad time to read a series of books about a Europe ravaged by the after-effects of a global pandemic, a refugee crisis, terrorism, and the break-up of the EU itself. But here we are. Dave Hitchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence is the ultimate in literary What If? for our time. Allow me to take you through this quartet, and introduce you to Rudi.

Dave Hutchinson (Image: us.macmillan.com)

An Estonian, working in a restaurant in Krakow, Rudi’s exceptional talents keep him gainfully employed in an economy that’s pretty much gone to hell. One evening at the restaurant, Rudi is approached by a representative of an underground organisation called the Couriers des Bois. His nationality could be of use to them, and they need someone to move a package across the many borders across the continent. Europe has become so segmented over the years that practically any entity, be it a statelet or national park, can declare independence and have its own border control process.

In Europe in Autumn, Rudi goes from being a cook to a spy. It’s impossible to swat away John le Carre vibes here. Rudi has to learn as he goes, and although he has support from the organisation, he’s very much on his own for much of the novel. His instructor/mentor is MIA, presumed traitorous. And his friends and family become targets of whomever is behind the “Great Conspiracy”. And oh, what a conspiracy it is!

Sometime in the 19th century, a family of English cartographers, map-makers, brought into existence a parallel Europe, and somehow this Europe, populated in the main by English people, and accessible from very few places in our Europe. Yes, it’s a head-scratcher. Dave Hutchinson moves from near-future spy fiction to the realm of fantasy. And it works, because throughout the book, we see everything through Rudi’s eyes. We’re as flummoxed as he is, but there’s a job to do and people to protect, so like James Bond and George Smiley, we want to get to the bottom of this mess.

Europe at Midnight takes us to the Campus, a university nation-state that’s both within and without the Community, the parallel Europe. It’s also the site where the flu virus was manufactured, and there’s also a nucleur weapon. Rudi has very little to do in this instalment, instead we follow Jim, who works for British intelligence. A stabbing on a London bus begins the intrigue, and in a story where the chronology of events has to be worked out by the reader, it’s a captivating puzzle that when worlds finally collide, some questions are answered, but inevitably many more take their place.

Europe in Winter sees the return of Rudi. It opens with the suicide bombing of an important railway tunnel operated by the Line, a network that crosses continental Europe and is a nation state itself. Think Amtrak, but you need a passport and travel documents to board. Awareness of the Community is widespread, and diplomatic relationships are struck up between the different European universes. Characters from previous books make an appearance, and the action includes assassinations, perilous travels between worlds, and a revision of history as we know it. There’s a wonderful sequence of events at the end involving an airport that I will not spoil here. You will have to read it for yourself.

In the last (presumably, but with Dave Hitchinson you never know) of the sequence, Europe at Dawn, there is a resolution of sorts for the disparate storylines, but also gives space to introduce new and important characters. There is murder, mayhem, chases, and escapes. There is a sublime subplot about a bejewelled skull in the possession of a travelling folk group that by the end of the book, it all makes some sort of sense. But not everything gets resolved; there’s no “and they all lived happily ever after”. But I remain very much okay with that.

The above summaries do little justice to the themes and events that run throughout Fractured Europe. I need to point out that at times, the books are very funny. There’s an almost Terry Pratchett feel to them. Dave Hutchinson’s attention to detail and knowledge of world and European history permeates each page and character. The new future world of which he writes is grey and mundane, but the story is rich in atmosphere. If John le Carre were to write speculative fiction as a spy story, he could not do a better job than Dave Hutchinson. He is a writer for and of our times.