Posted in Literature

Review: Gunmetal Gods

Gunmetal Gods (Gunmetal Gods #1)Gunmetal Gods by Zamil Akhtar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

NB: This review is also available on Black Dragon Books. Please consider using them for your SFF and Horror book purchases. 

 

What use is winning if we lose everything in the process, even ourselves?  This is the question that runs central to Gunmetal Gods by Zamil Akhtar. We see a war brought to the doors of Sirm; one that has been hundreds of years in the making led by a man, Micah, who is driven as much by vengeance as faith. On the other side, we have Kevah, a retired Janissary famed for his daring victory over a deadly mage ten years prior to the events in Gunmetal Gods. Both Kevah and Micah have lost loved ones, both have suffered and among all the parallels between them it is hard at the start of the book to know who to root for.

While the similarities between the two men continue throughout the book, the way they define themselves shows in their actions and after certain events, you’ll know which you’re meant to be backing. Nevertheless, Akhtar has done an amazing job at demonstrating how the two sides of any disagreement will make sense to those who are fighting over it.

There is loss and death in this story as well as love, friendship and hope. Where it differs from other dark fantasy I have read is in the systems of magic and gods, which is where Akhtar has let his imagination run wild. From Eldritch-looking, giant, physical gods, to goofy looking Kinn, the chicken-eagle-boy (you’ll see), there’s a lot that’s visually exciting to get your mind into with Gunmetal Gods.

This book took me by surprise quite a few times. I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy it as I’m not too fussed about Lovecraft, nor have I read much matchlock/flintlock fantasy. On both counts, my doubts were assuaged. The plot and pacing also surprised me a few times, bringing events that I was expecting to be end-of-book forward left me wondering where we’d go next: never was I disappointed. This is a well-written dark fantasy that will take you on a hell of a ride.

4 Stars

Posted in Literature

Review: Brave New World

Brave New WorldBrave New World by Aldous Huxley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

Brave New World was first published in 1932 by a man who was nominated for a Nobel Prize on nine separate occasions, so you can imagine that much of what can be said about Brave New World has already been said. It is used as set texts in school curricula and has had innumerable books, articles and research papers written about it. In context, this review is but a drop in the ocean. Nevertheless, I’ll do my best to express my thoughts on this, one of the top three dystopian classics.

I am always wary around titles that have been deemed ‘classics’ as history has taught me that I usually find them quite disappointing. There is an element of that here as my immediate thoughts upon finishing the book were to wonder if it were really a dystopian novel or just a philosophical thought-experiment from the 1930s. I found the treatment and portrayal of women in the book to be quite frustrating and very misogynistic. Huxley seems scared stiff of women and their potential for sexual liberation and so paints them in an damning light and punishes them terribly. 

Huxley’s misogyny has been criticised and acknowledged on a much wider scale, for example, Higdon wrote that it plagued much of Huxley’s work pre-1931 and continues on to summarise exactly what I was feeling: 

A careful consideration of Lenina’s attitudes, decisions, and actions shows that the overlay of misogyny careened Huxley into contradicting his ideas, into failing to see that Lenina is more heroic in her resistance to the Fordian world than are the men his narrative praises, and into taking an unearned and mean-spirited revenge on Lenina. In brief, Lenina’s resistance goes unnoticed in the novel because of the novel’s misogyny. (Higdon, 2002)

Higdon also brings in criticism from other scholars, including Deanna Madden:

…in an enlightening general discussion of misogyny in dystopias, Deanna Madden concludes that the men in Brave New World “have a spiritual dimension that the women lack … mired in the physical, the women interfere with or prevent the men from achieving spiritually” and that “Huxley’s misogyny has its obvious roots in a more general inability to accept the body.” (ibid.)

All this leads to bitter aftertaste from reading Brave New World but isn’t the only reason I didn’t get on with it.

Huxley attempts to paint a dystopian society as one that is anti-technology, anti-war, pro-happiness, pro-eugenics, pro-sexual freedom and pro-heteronormativity. It’s a complicated set of contradictory values, particularly when he introduces John the “Savage” from a reservation with no technology, plenty of violence, racism, zealotry and good-old misogyny. Both worlds in Huxley’s novel are unpleasant. Both are dystopias, but in Huxley’s rationalising we should want to live in the world with shame and violence because that’s were God lives. John’s moralising and evangelising are both ham-fisted and tedious. He has grown up in a world where his mother was an outcast who was beaten and slandered for her ‘promiscuity’; where John was an outcast because he was fair-haired and the son of the “she-dog”. Yet he believes his world is better because it contains God and Shakespeare. It’s not a convincing argument.

That is the main problem I have with Brave New World: none of it presents a convincing argument. In any direction. His “civilised society” is at odds with itself as he’s thrown all his own fears into the mix and with them his biases and illogical reasoning. The same thing is true of the “savage” society, which leaves the reader with no real side to settle on. The most sympathetic characters are the ones most maligned by the author (the women), so you find yourself constantly reading against the flow of the narrative. 

Overall, yes, it was well-written for the time. It has tried to bring voice to the concerns of a rich, intellectual man in a time where a eugenics movement was taking hold in Britain, technology was advancing owing to the events of a World War, while the whole region was brewing towards another one. I can understand those fears in that context but Brave New World is not nearly as relevant today owing to it’s major flaws in both narrative and the values it espouses. For these reasons, I can’t give it a higher rating than I already have.

3 stars

 

References:

Higdon, David Leon. “The Provocations of Lenina in Huxley’s Brave New World.” International Fiction Review 29.1/2 (2002): 78-83.

Posted in Literature

Review: Dreams of the Dying

Dreams of the Dying (Enderal, #1)Dreams of the Dying by Nicolas Lietzau
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

Some of you may have spotted on Goodreads that I read Dreams of the Dying and never reviewed it. Don’t worry, I have reviewed it and a full and comprehensive review can be found at Grimdark Magazine, here: https://www.grimdarkmagazine.com/review-dreams-of-the-dying-by-nicolas-lietzau/

I’m very pleased and excited to say I’m joining the Grimdark reviewer team with this, my debut review! 

Posted in Literature

Review: The Kaiju Preservation Society

The Kaiju Preservation SocietyThe Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A spectacular modern-day sci-fi romp through an alternate Earth with mountainous creatures and a bunch of nerds trying to study them. Jamie, our narrator, stumbles into a job as a lifter of things for KPS but, for some reason, doesn’t ask what KPS stands for. Upon arriving at his new workplace it becomes apparent: the K means Kaiju. Jamie and three other newbies to the company become quick friends as they try to wrap their heads around their new surroundings and the ‘animals’ they’re going to be protecting.

Life on Kaiju Earth is a lot more exciting than lockdown COVID Earth back home: with everything on the planet trying to eat you while you try to study it, there are some close calls, although Jamie seems to take it all in stride. As a massive sci-fi nerd himself, he has the mental capacity to perceive of such a reality and so it’s all not quite as much of a mind-melting shock as it could be.

Scalzi’s writing is quick, chatty and funny, and this is the perfect book to decompress with. It’s cool – there are giant monsters – it’s fun – there’s some great action – and, it has some heart too as the crew genuinely care about each other and the Kaiju around them. Capitalism rears is ugly head and threatens everything on both Earths and our team of plucky newbies take it upon themselves to fight back and save the day. They might not have a plan, per se, but they’ve got the right attitude.

The Kaiju Preservation Society is wonderfully written, includes diverse characters (without making a scene about it) and has a nicely cynical view of US politics back in 2020/21. Plus, Kaiju. I mean, what’s not to get excited about there? As Scalzi himself says in his note at the end of the book, this is a story to feel better after the shit few years we’ve had back in reality. It’s not meant to be a genre-breaking masterpiece for the ages; it’s meant to be fun. In that, Scalzi has certainly excelled himself.

5 Stars

NB: You can also see this review on Black Dragon Books here: https://www.blackdragonbooks.co.uk/?p=11926

Posted in Literature

Review: The Coward

The Coward (Quest for Heroes, #1)The Coward by Stephen Aryan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Coward takes a look behind the heroes in their tales and sagas to reveal who the real people behind the songs and daring deeds are. Written primarily from the point of view of main character, Kell Kressia, The Coward sees a damaged man thrust back into the world of heroism he had been hiding from for the last ten years. Once, he desperately wanted to be a hero and tagged along on a quest with eleven (11) men to defeat an Ice Lich in the Frozen North that threatened the Five Kingdoms with failing crops, famine and death. Only Kell returned and he is not keen to repeat the ordeal. Now, the weather has turned sour again, crops are failing and the King has summoned Kell to save the world once more. 

Kell takes us on his second epic quest as he relives some of the horrors he faced as a teenager. Along the way, he is joined by a rag-tag group of misfits each with their own reasons for following him into the grim Frozen North. What they experience and what they find out in the icy wasteland surprises even the cynical Kell. Meanwhile, the head of the church of the Shepherd, Reverend Mother Britak, is manipulating events in the Five Kingdoms to bring about a holy war to bring all in line under her one true god.

Through Kell’s story, Stephen Aryan examines feelings of fear, courage and obligation, as well as the physical and mental toll heroism takes on the individual. Kell describes symptoms much akin to PTSS and it is a refreshing – albeit dark – take on epic fantasy giving it a touch of realism. We explore the tragedies of death, loss and the grief that goes with it but also friendship, belonging and love. The Coward packs a lot into its pages.

If this sounds heavy, fret not, as the prose is accessible and short chapters will have you sailing through it in no time. This could easily be read as a standalone if you’re worried about waiting for book two (The Warrior) but there’s still enough there to set the stage for a sequel. My only real criticism is that, for a traditionally published book, there were quite a few editing/proofreading misses and mistakes. The overall experience made up for it but nevertheless it did lose some points in my mind over this (I was reading the paperback version, these issues may have been rectified in digital copies or later printings).

4 Stars

Posted in Literature

Review: Prince of Thorns

Prince of Thorns (The Broken Empire, #1)Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Note: I’ve kept this one short given the popularity of the series and the length of time it’s been out. It’s hard to provide a no-spoiler review that doesn’t cover what everyone before me has already mentioned.

This was Mark Lawrence’s debut and first in The Broken Empire trilogy where we follow Jorg, a prince to one of a hundred kingdoms all vying to become Emperor and reunite the lands. He’s also a character who has suffered some unimaginable hardship and loss. He has seen terrible things and it broke him as a child so that now, as a young man, he is whip sharp and hardened.

Prince of Thorns is a fast-paced dark science-fantasy (grimdark, specifically) following Jorg and his road brothers as he tries making his first advances to be King. I knew this was going to be a Sci-Fantasy before starting out but if I hadn’t there are plenty of clever little nods to it that Lawrence has worked into the prose before the point where it becomes readily obvious. At times, you can tell this was a debut and the writing could use a touch more polish though this doesn’t impact on the story.

Lawrence has made some interesting choices as to what has survived through the years to reach Jorg’s time. You will recognise names like Plato and Nietzche but nothing more modern; you will likely recognise ‘Jesu’ as a version of Jesus where the ‘s’ has been dropped over time and of all religions it seems Catholicism in particular is what has endured into the era of the Broken Empire. Sadly, it seems nothing like feminism or other concepts of equality have made it through the millenia as succession is still a man’s game and the trappings of patriarchal capitalism remain everywhere. While those do represent some disappointing missed opportunities what does comprise Prince of Thorns remains a satisfying dark fantasy tale that serves as a keen character study.

4 stars

Posted in Literature

Review: We Are The Dead

We Are the Dead (The Last War, #1)We Are the Dead by Mike Shackle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When you think of a rollercoaster it’s fast, frenetic and a little bit scary, which is what you’ll get from We Are the Dead without having to queue for two hours first. WATD is the debut novel from Mike Shackle in his grimdark series The Last War, following its characters through the dark and deadly life in an occupied territory as they try to resist the enemy and take back their country, Jia.  The book’s main storyline takes place over a span of eight days, which adds to the fast-paced nature of it, and follows five main points of view: Tinnstra, Jax, Dren, Yas and Darus.  

Tinnstra is a young woman consumed by fear and a desperate desire to live but not necessarily the courage to fight for it until she gets caught up in an escape attempt that could give all of Jia hope for a future of freedom.  While the blurb on the reverse of the book only specifically mentions Tinnstra, she is not the sole focus of the story; nevertheless her arc presents a refreshingly honest take on violence and war. After all, if you look within yourself, would you really have the courage to fight an unwinnable war knowing it would cause your certain death? Or, would you be petrified and forced to run and hide?

Dren’s story – aside from Tinnstra’s – shows some of the most growth. From a reckless, rebellious teenager, hellbent on killing the enemy no matter the cost, to a young man who can see the bigger picture and the part he has to play in it. The character development across the board is excellent and Dren’s is possibly my favourite.

There is plenty of dark, grim and gritty content here too. Everyone suffers some sort of familial loss, even if in one case it’s a twistedly happy affair. There is death on a mass scale, betrayal, failure, torture and the ever-present looming darkness of fear. This is still a tale of rebellion and resistance despite all the odds going against our Jian friends and a brilliant read that is more than it seems.

Some TW/CW for the book: suicidal ideation, sexual assault, mentions of and attempted r*pe, torture 

5 stars

Posted in Literature

Review: Of Blood and Fire

Of Blood and Fire (The Bound and the Broken, #1)Of Blood and Fire by Ryan Cahill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of Blood and Fire from Ryan Cahill is a great debut, marking the start of The Bound and the Broken series, which proved an addictive read. It is a classic epic fantasy with a modern interpretation. Though this starts off in familiar territory – with 3 young men, as close as brothers, on the eve of their manhood trial, which inevitably goes awry and the village bully gets involved – it is very much worth the read. 

The central characters are ones you can care about and root for. Calen, Dann & Rist are our three freshly-proven young men who get caught up in a kerfuffle with the big bad Empire after they befriend the mysterious Erik who is travelling incognito with his brother and father. After coming to the aid of their new friends, our main boys are landed in the shit and it gets worse before getting better.

Along their journey these three make discoveries about themselves and the world around them. They witness a baby dragon hatching – the first in over 400 years – they meet elves, giants, dwarves and are chased across the continent by a Fade hellbent on destroying the aforementioned baby dragon.

Without giving too much more away there are stakes, there is loss, there is wonder and awe in this book. At times there are some words used that feel a bit jarring or out of place where a simpler descriptor could have sufficed but I think Cahill shows a lot of promise. Book 2 in the series, Of Darkness and Light, is already out and the third installation is due later this year (Of War and Ruin) so you won’t have to wait long to continue the story. Cahill is also planning to release a novella set in The Bound and the Broken world prior to Book 3’s release to keep eager fans ticking over.

I would recommend reading the prequel novella, The Fall, as it clues you in to some of the language and magic of this world and gives a good sense of the epic proportions the main series is heading for. Did I mention there are dragons?

4.5 stars

Posted in Literature

Review: The Hand of the Sun King

The Hand of the Sun King (Pact and Pattern, #1)The Hand of the Sun King by J.T. Greathouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars



An Asian-inspired fantasy steeped in ancestry, obligation and magics. Wen Alder is a child of a Sien father and a Nayeni mother; the Sienese are the conquerors of Nayen (& many other lands) and Alder is torn between the two early in his life. His (maternal) Grandmother names him in the Nayeni tradition – Foolish Cur – and tries to teach him of their ways in secret alongside his training at his Father’s behest towards taking the Imperial Examinations at 17.

Alder yearns for magic and after a foolish attempt to wield it before understanding it his Grandmother departs to join the Nayeni rebellion in the north, leaving Alder only one path to know magic: to become a Hand of the Emperor. In the first series of examinations to take place in Nayen, Alder succeeds and begins his apprenticeship as a Hand, however, his introduction to imperial magic is not what he had hoped and his desperate desire to find that pure and powerful magic he touched as a child is rekindled.

This is a coming-of-age story that encompasses a number of years in the life of Alder, from 5 to 23, and what he learns in his questing journey for magic that has fascinated him as long as he can remember. We follow him through years of study, his examinations, apprenticeship and beyond as he tries to learn as much as can be found on magic. What he finds is often a disappointment to him and his pursuit of this knowledge leads him into some tragic circumstances, changing him forever.

The prose it not thick and is quite easy to read. The book is about the perfect length to introduce you thoroughly to Alder and this world as he learns more about it. The first-person POV I think complements this slow revealing of knowledge very well. One positive compared to other coming-of-age, 1st person POV fantasy novels (e.g. Farseer) is that there is no achingly slow downtime where little appears to happen. The Hand of the Sun-King ensure there is no dull, drawn out expositions or lengthy travel sequences to force yourself through. The only downside I felt was that there’s a lot to fit in and as such some events had more of a cursory going-over.

Nevertheless, I think this is an excellent debut and would love to continue the series.



Thanks to NetGalley and the Orion Publishing Group for access to an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) in exchange for review.

Posted in Literature

RaiReads: Gideon the Ninth

Gideon the Ninth (The Locked Tomb #1)Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you’ve come for the “lesbian necromancers in space” then, er, readjust your expectations. There’s no romantic or sexual involvement between anyone. Sure, Gideon fancies women but at no point does anyone identify themselves by a set sexuality – she could be bi for all we know – and while she sort-of fancies one of the other necromancers (not Harrow) for a while, that’s it. She notices when one of the other women is in very flimsy attire but also notices the ’58 abdominal muscles’ of one of the male cavaliers too. Also, Gideon is not a necromancer. Also, they’re not really in space, they’re on a planet. So forget all the taglines, because they’re bullshit.

I liked Gideon as a character but felt like there wasn’t enough development of her and Harrow (more in the spoiler section below). Sure, their relationship changed but it made some big leaps as opposed to a steady progression and as such some of the story that relied on their relationship fell a bit flat. The necromancy and sword fights were pretty fun and if there’d been more than 2 or 3 actual fights I might not have felt quite so bored mid-book. I started skim-reading toward the end of Act III through some of it just to get to the next dialogue section as that seemed to be where all the information lay.

One criticism I heard before reading was that it was hard to follow all the names of characters because there were so many ways to refer to the same person, e.g.: Coronabeth Tridentarius was also Corona and ‘the glorious twin’ (or something similar). And while ‘the mayonnaise uncle’ was an amusing moniker, it was a bit difficult keeping everyone straight in my head and I had to keep referring back to the roster at the start of the book. The names were also a complete pain to try and pronounce correctly and I spent the whole book arguing with my brain and ended up shortening names to make it easier to read. After I finished the story, I found the pronunciation guide right at the back of the book, however, even then, my brain rebels.

One such other naming scheme was that of the Fourth house’s obnoxious teens. The awful teens. And so on. Despite the fact Gideon and Harrow are also teenagers. This felt like something a person in their late 30s or up would moan about – teenagers so obnoxiously full of life – not an 18 year old.

———SPOILERS BELOW————-

There was a lot unexplored and unexplained and bits that seemed to contradict other parts of the story; it is mentioned that Gideon survived huffing nerve gas for 10 hours as an infant; she’s survived a lot of things that should’ve killed other people; her parentage is a mystery; and then all of a sudden she’s dead at the end of the book. Um, what? Sure I expect those things will be explored in the next book(s) but the ending doesn’t exactly encourage me to read those because there’s just too many arrows that were let loose all at once and only some hit their mark, the rest are scattered all over the place.

In a review for Harrow the Ninth, I read that Gideon was H’s “one true love” and, I’ll be honest, that is 100% not what I got from this book. They realise they need each other and rely on each other but “one true love” was not what they were exuding at all. Here, I’ll point back to my comment about their relationship development taking some awfully big leaps without any groundwork to justify them.

It took me almost a month to read because of all these little niggles and because Act 3 & 4 were just a bit bleh. The novelty of having Gideon be a foul-mouthed teen using 21st Century language wore off pretty swiftly as I wondered how the heck she was meant to have heard of pizza or mayonnaise while spending her entire life on a dingy rock of a planet where they all live underground and eat gruel and ‘snow leeks’. Hm. It’s not quite bad enough to be a 2 star but I was really hoping for better.

View all my GoodReads reviews

This was book 75 of 2020.