Empire in Black and Gold (Shadows of the Apt #1)

by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Paperback Edition, 612 pages

Originally published 2008

” So why inflict their regime on other people?” she demanded. “Because we must grow lest we stagnate,” he replied, as though it was as very simple as that. “And because those who are not within the Empire remain a threat to it…”

This has been on my radar for a while but the low scores have put me off and i already have a couple of long series on the go. What swayed me was the superb Cage of Souls by the same author, which is one of the better books i’ve read this year.

It’s an interesting plot concept which brings to mind the film 300 (well, my mind. maybe nobody else’s). The Wasps play the part of the Xerxes led Persians as they sweep over the land conquering all before them aiming for their end goal of ‘One Nation’. Stenwold Maker, a beetle spymaster defeated in the books opening battle at Myna, is laying low in Collegium keeping his eye on the advancing Wasps as they slowly make their way to the Lowlands. His attempts at convincing the governors of Collegium to take action and prepare for the inevitable invasion are rejected due to their selfishness. The idea of invasion is a joke to them so they’d rather turn a blind and live like fat kings. Fed up of Collegiums ignorance Stenwold assembles a team and departs for the Industrial city of Helleron, which seems to be the Wasps next conquest.

The idea of an all devouring race slowly conquering an entire world just appeals to me and the execution is pretty good. The standout sections are the political scheming and negotiations between the different insect/human races; dialogue is definitely the authors strongest writing skill. The downside to this book is the fighting/battle scenes; they’re such a drag. I found myself zoning out every time there was a scuffle. They seemed amateur compared to the rest of the book.

Fight scenes aside it’s a decent opener to a fantasy series and i will read book 2.

My score – 3/5

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Winter in Madrid

by C.J. Sansom

Paperback Edition, 549 pages

Originally published 2006

“A bomb had fallen in Victoria Street. It had gouged a wide crater in the road and taken down the front of several shops…”

Better known for his Shardlake series, which i probably won’t get into, Winter in Madrid sees C.J. Sansom dabbling in post-Civil-War Spain during World War II. Injured Dunkirk veteran Harry Brett is hired by the British government to spy on his old school pal Sandy Forsyth who is now living in Spain and is involved in the shady world of gold mining. Harry’s mission is to uncover Sandy’s intentions and where his loyalties lie. The secondary plot involves Sandy’s wife, Barbara, attempting to locate old love interest Bernie who disappeared during the Spanish Civil War. 

Excuse the old analogy but this is a book of two halves. Part one sets up the story with decent character building and a good insight into WWII during 1940 with plenty of references to actual events. I’d class part two as the last 150 pages where the book just runs out of momentum. After the intrigue that is built during the first two thirds the latter stages of the book start to reveal where the plot will end up and it’s pretty average. If anything the big reveal tainted the story because it made a great deal of the book pointless.

Unfortunately the author does a fairly average job of depicting a war ravaged Spain. His descriptions are fine with streets rife with poverty and people starving into nothingness but i just didn’t feel any emotion coming through the pages. The Book Thief or All the Light We Cannot See are similar books of historical fiction and they genuinely made me lump-in-the-throat-sad, which is what i wanted. Winter in Madrid throws up the odd scene of heartache but i didn’t truly believe in it. They appear almost as afterthoughts.

My score – 2/5

Cage of Souls

by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Hardback Edition, 602 pages

Originally published 2019

“I suddenly saw things clearly myself, and I realised that there was no point. Shadrapar has no purpose, no function. It exists for itself only, its own downward spiral to oblivion…”

I consider this a very apt book just as the temperature of the earth increases year on year and that I read most of this during the ‘Sahara Bubble’, which scorched many parts of Europe this past week. I am grateful for the UK’s weather system as it was subjected to just one day of 30 degree heat this past Saturday whilst parts of France reached a terrifying 45. Cage of Souls is set an unspecified amount of time in the earths future when most of the population has been wiped out. The cause is never fully explained with only a few vague references to the past but clearly climate change was the catalyst. The sun is also on the decline with no clear time frame of how long it has. 

Shadrapar is civilsations last remaining city with a 100,000 occupants surrounded by uninhabitable deserts, jungle and freakish monsters. Nature has reclaimed Earth and the humans are playing piggy in the middle holding onto the last vestiges of humankind. Despite the frailty of the world there’s still a government who send people to prison. Dubbed ‘The Island’ it is home to a couple of thousand law breakers with no hope of ever leaving. It’s a rank sounding place surrounded by creature infested waters and a dangerous jungle. Stefan Advani is our main protagonist sent to ‘The Island’ to live out his last days in Hell. He meets many bizarre and violent characters and gradually recounts his story of how he ended up in prison.

This is a damn good book. It’s well written with prose full of philosophical thoughts and environmental descriptions that will delay any treks into the Amazon; it is a brutal future depicted to us by the author. Shadrapar reminded me of Ankh Morpork from the Discword series with its corruption and claustrophobic setting. The pacing is bang on with parts alternating between the prison and Stefan’s time in Shadrapar. They’re also a few references to the past, which is a nice touch. The last third isn’t as strong as what came before but the ending was just so fitting i couldn’t help but smile when i realised where the story was going. Absolute class.

My score – 4/5

Seveneves

by Neal Stephenson

Hardback Edition, 880 pages

Originally published 2015

“Earth looked as if some god had attacked it with a welder’s torch, slashing away at it and leaving thin trails of incandescence…”

I do enjoy a good end of the world story especially when there’s no Bruce Willis or Ben Affleck to swoop in and save the day as our planet is well and truly screwed! After the moon blows apart a science genius announces that earth has two years before a hellfire storm, which becomes known as the Hard Rain, will turn our home world into an uninhabitable world of desolation. During the final two years of our existence the world governments join forces and launch into space as many habitable ships full of resources and clever folk as the remaining time permits. As a synopsis it sounds awesome but sadly there are only mere glimpses of greatness.

Parts 1 and 2 cover the two year preparation before the mass extinction and it isn’t what I expected or wanted from an apocalypse book. Rather than focus on the reaction of civilisation the majority of the story is set on the space station that will inevitably become the new home of the few lucky survivors. There’s no insightful prose into the emotional side of the apocalypse and how people are coping. There isn’t even any rioting, which is ridiculous. Instead of mayhem we’re subjected to endless pages of science theory and space craft construction, which both go into the most painstaking detail I’ve ever read in a novel. This reads more like a government handbook on what to do if the moon blows up. There is kind of a story but mostly this is shameless self indulgence. Part 2 is way better than part 1 as there’s an actual story that develops but just I was starting to like where it was going part 2 finishes and fast forwards 5000 years. 

It only took 20 pages of part 3 before I was on Wikipedia reading a summary so I didn’t have to read 300 pages of mind numbingly boring descriptions of more sciency stuff and space crafts. Very disappointing.

My score – 1/5

Orb Sceptre Throne (Malazan Novel #4)

by Ian C. Esslemont

Paperback Edition, 850 pages

Originally published 2012

“Did we not look out together upon the dark waters of the lake and behold there the constellations of both hemispheres at once…”

The fourth I.C.E novel written in the Malazan world and i’m a little disappointed especially as i thought he’d found his rhythm with each of the last three books improving in quality. I think the main problem with Orb Sceptre Throne is the setting. After a lengthy stay in Darujhistan in Toll the Hounds we’re back there again. I thought Erikson wrote a satisfactory end to its citizens without the need to check in on them anytime soon but we revisit for another 844 pages.

Whilst exploring an old well a treasure hunter stumbles upon a room with a corpse wearing a gold mask. Even though he should probably walk away he obviously doesn’t and takes the mask. It’s cursed with the soul of an old Darujhistan tyrant who’s now unleashed on the world. The second story follows Bridgeburner legend Antsy as he makes his way to Moons Spawn in search of the infinite riches rumored to be amongst the wreckage. There’s also Kiska and Leoman continuing their search for Tayschrenn on the Shores of Creation and finally the first proper outing for the Seguleh who answer a call to return home. As with most Malazan books there is an inevitable convergence of these story lines. 

The book isn’t bad it just felt like we were covering old ground. What made Return of the Crimson Guard and Stonewielder so good was the exploration of different places but with the exception of the Seguleh, who are a pretty dull culture, there’s nothing new to get excited about. The main story of the Tyrant attempting to take over the continent isn’t that enthralling and the side plots are also substandard compared to previous books. 

I’m confident that Blood and Bone and Assail will be a return to form as they cover new continents but unfortunately Orb Sceptre Throne is only worthy of an average score.

My score – 3/5

Conversation in the Cathedral

by Mario Vargas Llosa

Paperback Edition, 602 pages

Originally published 1969

“He was like Peru, Zavalita was, he’d fucked himself up somewhere along the line. He thinks: when?”

My third book by Mario Vargas Llosa and the history lessons continue. 1950’s Peru is the focus when General Odria led a successful coup against Jose Bustamante installing his oppressive and ridiculously corrupt regime.

Two friends, who’ve lost touch over the years, encounter each other at a dog pound and decide to have a celebratory reunion drink. The first chapter is the start and end of the conversation, which lasts about 20 pages. Everything after this are the memories/flashbacks they discuss during their chat. I can only imagine they’re super-fast talkers as not much time seems to elapse between them entering and exiting the bar and yet we get two whole life stories!

The first point to mention is the writing style as they’ll be 2 or 3 conversations taking place at the same time with each sentence of dialogue alternating between the different conversations. It took me until chapter 4 to realise what was going on. I did get used to the style but it was annoying, especially as it wasn’t necessary and diminished my reading experience. This does change for part two with a more standard one section per character format being used but the craziness is re-introduced later on.

Writing style aside this is a decent novel with all of the emotional distress I’d expect from a story of a country under a Dictators rule. There’s a good spectrum of characters with the powerfully corrupt and the despairingly poor clashing with each other. Most of all this is a slice of real life during a troubling period of Peru’s history and how lives are shaped by governments.

Conversation in the Cathedral isn’t as impressive as The Feast of the Goat or War of the End of the World. At times it was addictive but for every extended period of brilliance there was a 30 page interval of annoyance, usually at the writing style but at times the story becomes scattered and confusing. If I was to read this again my rating would probably be higher as a second go would be more rewarding and the whole story would make more sense. But until that happens it’s a lower score than i anticipated.

My score – 3/5

Forge of Darkness (The Kharkanas Trilogy #1)

by Steven Erikson

Hardback Edition, 662 pages

Originally published 2012

“There will be peace…”

Despite my love of the Malazan Book of the Fallen it’s taken longer than I anticipated to get around to the Kharkanas prequel trilogy mainly because I discovered the Wheel of Time and have been reading the Ian C Esslemont related series. Although ICE’s series of books are brilliant, he’s still second fiddle to the king of complex fantasy Steven Erikson.

There was a little less enthusiasm for Forge of Darkness because I was expecting an Anomander Rake lovefest and although he’s a great character I fear a full book dedicated to the great man may have lessened his impact. This wasn’t even close to the truth as Rake barely appears and isn’t the centre of attention.

The book takes place in Kurald Galain just after the Tiste race’s victory over the Jheleck, who sound like a variation of K’Chain Che’Malle. Mother Dark sits on the Throne of Night and is cavorting with Draconus, which is proving to be an unpopular choice among the rest of the highborns. Legend of war Vatha Urusander is the preferred choice to court Mother Dark but he’s holed up in his castle slightly bitter that it’s peace time and his Legion (army) is surplus to requirements. His most loyal captains are also annoyed at the lack of action so they take it upon themselves to start a civil war. There’s also a couple of the usual ‘side quests’ you’d expect from an Erikson book.

A great many themes are tackled in Forge of Darkness including religion, genocide, class war and communism. It is heavy on philosophy and could be classed as self indulgent but Eriksons writing is so genius it doesn’t feel that way. Everything he writes is relevant to the story.

It’s slow going but it’s book 1 of the trilogy so it’s expected. Over half the book is story building and seed planting and when the meat of the story does start there still isn’t a lot happening. I can only imagine this is an intro and Fall of Light is where the real action is at. Despite the pace it’s brilliant and is as good as any of the main Malazan books. My final score was never in doubt.

My score – 5/5