The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow – Book Review

This review was originally published over at Booknest.eu.

Published by: Redhook (Orbit)
Genre: Historical Fantasy, Magical Realism
Pages: 374
Format: Kindle ebook.
Purchased Copy.

In Alix E. Harrow, I see a respect for stories and words and the power they hold equal to that of Ursula K. Le Guin. If you’ve followed me awhile, you know the depth of this compliment and if you haven’t, boy, have I a few recommendations for you. But this isn’t about Ursula, it’s about The Ten Thousand Doors of January, a novel that takes a magnifying glass and points it at the connection between stories, the worlds they originate from and those who are brave enough to explore them.

January Scaller is a unique girl, though in what way may not become readily apparent. True, she is “a perfectly unique specimen,” as her guardian, Mr. Locke puts it, a child grown up under the wing of this most affluent personage. “A perfectly unique specimen, odd-colored perhaps but not colored” is the description this man, almost a father to her, gives January early on. It is the turn of the 20th century, and this is America – if you needed a reminder of the disquiet, the sheer horrible racist reality of that time, the following sentence, from the view of a seven-year old, encapsulates it well: “I didn’t really know what made a person colored or not, but the way he [Mr. Locke] said it made me glad I wasn’t.” See, in only a few paragraphs, Harrow has given us a conflicting view of the man January considers a father figure.

Not that January doesn’t have a father; it is merely that he, Julian Scaller, spends most of his time tracking treasures and rare objects for his employer, the very same Mr. Locke. Cornelius Locke is something of a collector, you see, and his home would make even the Smithsonian seem an enthusiast’s collection by comparison. January’s father is his most successful agent, owed to Julian’s ability to follow stories to their source – the stories of people and of places, the origins behind their myths

It is a talent his daughter seems to have inherited, for it isn’t the dotting of a millionaire that makes her “a perfectly unique specimen” but the hunger she feels for stories and adventures, for the world outside the confines of Locke House. Like many of you who now read this review – like me – January escapes the tedium of her everyday reality through novels – penny dreadfuls and adventure stories, the horror and excitement of the grotesque. And when, on her seventeenth birthday, life throws at her the very worst it has to offer, it’s into a book that she escapes.

“…(see how that word slips into even the most mundane of stories? Sometimes I feel there are doors lurking in the creases of every sentence, with periods for knobs and verbs for hinges).

A book that so conscientiously examines the power of stories is difficult to critique in a worthwhile way – and I’m not quite certain I’ve

The Villains (see the shape of the V, how it places opposites on its two ends, mirroring one another and yet different?) of The Ten Thousand Doors of January range from the universal gothic of the time period to the deeply personal, the kind of villain to kill for – if you’ll pardon the pun.

Its the language, the melodious nature of it that is enchanting to the reader. The masterful control over character voice is equally impressive – a sizable portion of the book adopts the tenets of an epistolary novel, making use of a voice very different from January’s own:

The following monograph concerns the permutations of a repeated motif in world mythologies: passages, portals, and entryways. Such a study might at first seem to suffer from those two cardinal sins of academia—frivolity and triviality—but it is the author’s intention to demonstrate the significance of doorways as phenomenological realities.
At least, that is the book I intended to write, when I was young and arrogant. Instead, I’ve written something strange, deeply personal, highly subjective. I am a scientist studying his own soul, a snake swallowing its own tail.

Harrow’s use of these chapters to tell several stories serves to pace January’s own tale and to create additional tension early on,

I return then to Alix Harrow’s respect of words, captured best in the following: “Words and their meanings have weight in the world of matter, shaping and reshaping realities through a most ancient alchemy.”This is at the heart of our culture, did you know? Our society and we as members of it, invent and reinvent ourselves through the process of the word, written or spoken. Our civilization rests on the written word, where many have perished before, their words once spoken but no longer heard. And this novel gets it, understands the importance of words and their ability to change minds and hearts and the paths we make for ourselves.

There’s also the emotional connection – something deeply individual for all readers – but the novel and its characters, their suffering and loss and love and joy as they realised themselves in full, all this found resonance in me. About mid-way through, I even teared up, and there’s nothing like a few tears to illustrate how deeply you connect to a text on an emotional level.

I’m under the impression that this novel is a standalone – and I would like to praise the author for her choice; The Ten Thousand Doors of January accomplishes in one book what many series don’t manage in three – a complete story from beginning to end, which leaves the door…not sealed, not entirely, but firmly closed.

I give The Ten Thousand Doors of January a score of 5/5 stars; if I were using a ten-point system, I’d give it a 9.5 out of 10 because the ending plays it a little bit too safe and the epilogue, while a wonderful way to say goodbye to the characters, wasn’t necessary. Almost as if Harrow wanted one last moment with these characters – something I can hardly blame her for.

My recommendation goes out to all those among you who are in love with the magic of words and stories, those of you who feel a certain disquiet when they think of having to spend a lifetime going through the motions; The Ten Thousand Doors is for adventurers and travellers and seekers. Take a look – I wager you won’t regret it.

Prosper's Demon by K. J. Parker – Book Review

This review was originally posted over at booknest.eu!

Published by: Macmillan-Tor/Forge
Genre: Fantasy, Historical, Dark
Pages: 112 (according to Goodreads)
Format: Novella, e-book
Review Copy:  Provided by NetGalley in return for an honest review.
Release Date: January 28th, 2020

At long last, I’ve gotten my hands on a work by K. J. Parker, an author very well regarded in the wider fantasy community. Judging by the quality of Prosper’s Demon, I have to wonder – what the hell took me so long?

Written in the first person, this novella tells of the trials and tribulations of an unnamed exorcist in a world very like our own during the early Renaissance. Our protagonist is not a nice guy. He is devious, cunning and unscrupulous, a man who shows no qualms when it comes to inflicting pain to his fellow human beings. A vile man, written excellently and with an undercurrent of gallows humour that colours everything in the world around him – this worked very well for me.

The world this exorcist inhabits is one filled with cruelty, pain and Them, an awful lot of Them, demons who possess humans and seem capable of inducing in them extreme states – these creatures can only be seen by a chosen few born with the ability to recognize them, and this ability is as much a gift as a curse…as the protagonist will prove to you, reader.

You have to learn to think like Them, they told me when I was just starting out in the business; only, don’t get too good at it. They say that to all the students, and none of us really understand what it means at the time. In and out of each other’s heads, like neighbors in a small, friendly village, which is exactly what we aren’t. Or to put it another way, it doesn’t do to get too familiar.

The reason Prosper’s Demon won me over, though, has to do with it not being your average exorcist/demon game of cat and mouse. Rather, it’s the structure of the story, the fact that a lot of it is built around conversations between the protagonist and the eponymous Prosper, a Leonardo da Vinci-esque genius of unparalleled scientific intellect. A lot is done right in those dialogues, obfuscating the truth, confusing the reader and making the outcome of the story questionable at all times.

Some of it, too, has to do with bronzeworking and the casting of statues – and I was struck by how well researched these sections were, by the veracity of complex processes as they were described.

If, like me, you’ve never before read the work of K. J. Parker, Prosper’s Demon is an excellent place to start, short but none the poorer in ideas for it. My score? 5/5!

Oh, and the cover? Gorgeous, sets up just the right tone for this strange tale.

Hades: The Welcome To Hell Update (State of the Game)

Hades continues to develop in a great direction with the last update of 2019, Welcome to Hell. With only five days away from the next big patch, I thought I’d take a look at the State of the Game of my favourite Early Access title as it is right before the Demeter update!

The verdict? Solid additions all around! Though, between you and me, I spoke about a few elements added outside of the “Welcome to Hell” update. That said, Hades continues to be my favourite roguelite, and everything it does, it does extremely well.

30 Years Before: Eye of the World Came Out

Moiraine Damodred by  Dan Dos Santos

I don’t remember the exact age I first read the Eye of the World, though I must have been pre-teen. I remember my dad having bought the first three – they just came out in Bulgarian for the very first time. I was going to the villa with my grandparents, and I had these three thick tomes with me; I had…maybe a week of downtime, likely over Spring vacation and Easter.

I devoured Eye of the World, The Great Hunt and The Dragon Reborn in three, maybe four days. It was love at first chapter, magical and binding, and to hell with it if these books did not become part of my DNA for the week I spent reading and rereading them. This is one of the foundational series of the fantasy genre and it deepend my love for worldbuilding, complex characters, geopolitics and veiled representations of Odin and Arthurian legends.

Thirty years, they’ve been out in the world. More than all the time I’ve spent on this Earth. Thirty years, and the Wheel of Time will soon be available for a whole new generation through a medium even some of the most hardcore fans of this fantasy epic didn’t believe it would ever be seen in.

Don’t screw this up, Amazon.

Me? I go back to these novels, sometimes — in audio format, in the original language they were written in. Every time the trip is familiar, and every time it is new…but it is always something to remember.

“The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills, and we are only the thread of the Pattern.”

I’m still crushing on Moiraine Damodred, y’all.

Six Excellent Sci-Fi Novels I read in 2019

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

First of all, look at that cover art. Look at it. It’s breathtaking. It creates within you certain expectations, of majesty and power and Empire, of two cultures clashing with one another, of two individuals removed from all others for entirely different reasons. It sets up a confrontation, too, a central notion of otherness; it is, in a word, one of the finest sci-fi covers I have ever seen.

The book itself?

A Memory Called Empire is a celebration of masterful worldbuilding and cerebral storytelling, the story of exciting political intrigue and murder, of civilization and the other. All these vastly differing aspects are threaded seamlessly into one, a narrative that enfolds steadily at first, turning ever more unpredictable and complex as the story progresses.

The reader will find the culture and society of the Teixcalaanli Empire both familiar and alien; while individuals are driven by passions that will be familiar to any of us, the culture is ruled by an obsession with the past and the recreating of it. One of the tools in the recreation of the Teixcalaanli’s past is poetry, which plays a unique role in the Empire, from politics to its every other social aspect. Whether criticizing authority or in defense of it, poets have influence enough over the citizens of the Empire to force them onto the streets; the role of poets reminded me of what Percy Bysshe Shelley described as “…legislators of the world” in his essay, “A Defence of Poetry.”

This is but a part of my full review of the novel. A Memory Called Empire is my favourite sci-fi novel of 2019, and second only to The Word for World is Forest in terms of blowing my sci-fi mind with the sheer scope of its ideas.

Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson, why you gotta be so good?!

Spensa returns in this character-driven adventure, forced into a situation wholly outside her experience. As a result, Starsight is an exploration of the other, and a way to reconcile with it. It is a story of fear, of facing that fear and growing stronger for the staring down of it. It is a tale of friendship, loyalty and sacrifice. And it is beautiful.

You can read my full review of it here.

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin

The 2010s took Ursula K. Le Guin from us at the venerable age of 88; as I find my way through her works, I realise more and more that hers was an extraordinary loss, one that will leave a void in the SFF community. Her humanity, humility, wry humour and wisdom, her ideas – they humble you. They make you a whole lot more human, they change and transform you. It’s a scary thing – you can sit down, thinking you know yourself, then open up a book by Ursula K. Le Guin and suddenly, you’re not so sure. Something, a process, a shift has taken you away from yourself and you are new, you are different, and that is scary. Scary as all hell. But also special.

Here is a work of speculative fiction worthy of the “Masterworks” label. The Word for World is Forest  has plenty of meat on the bone despite the short number of pages its text occupies. It’s thematically rich, a novel of memorable ideas and characters both. Le Guin problematises the ethic of exploitation in her signature style, poignant and deeply thoughtful.

“…it was becoming clear that the ethic which approved the defoliation of forests and grainlands and the murder of non-combatants in the name of “peace” was only a corollary of the ethic which permits the despoliation of natural resources for private profit or the GNP, and the murder of the creatures of the Earth in the name of “man”. The victory of the ethic of exploitation, in all societies, seemed as inevitable as it was disastrous.” (from Le Guin’s Introduction).

This realisation is the initial push that gave birth to The Word for World is Forest. The theme of exploitation is joined by the equally relevant subject of colonialism: our very own human race, now travelling along the stars, has promulgated across different planets; central for The Word is the so-called world of “New Tahiti,” dominated by oceans and lush green forests, where a little over two thousand men are working to deforest the world one island at a time, in order to sate the unquenchable thirst of an Earth that has exhausted all its natural resources of wood.

My full review for it is here.

Shadow and Claw by Gene Wolfe

What is this madness, and what right does it have to be so damnably good?

This is the first half of Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, one of the most complex sci-fi novels ever written – at least that seems to be the prevailing opinion. It’s complex and not a quick read, and it takes an emotional toll. But there’s something about this world, this Urth awaiting the birth of its New Sun, that is nothing short of transcedental. It treads the line between sci-fi and postmodernism, playing around with time and voice and philosophy, and it’s unnervingly complex.

Well-worth the read, though, for everything the torturer Severian goes through. And possibly the re-read. I’m slowly making my way through the remaining two novels – you can expect my review/essay/manifesto on the series later this year.

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Stephen King writes a time-travelling thriller about an English college teacher’s attempt to . Is it as sci-fi as anything else on the list? Likely as not. But is it as good as anything else on the list? Yes, yes it is. You want to read more about it? Here you go!

Thrawn: Treason by Timothy Zahn

Despite the extremely divisive nature of The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker, we live in a golden age of Star Wars for fans of the franchise. Not since Zahn’s original trilogy and the Knights of the Old Republic games has there been such a sheer amount of excellent expanded universe content; comics, novels, even audio dramas (though, I hear, the Dooku audiodrama of last year wasn’t quite as good as most would’ve liked). Leading the

Thrawn: Treason is but the latest of Zahn’s New Canon novels and it does an excellent work of playing to the blue-skinned tactical genius’ strengths. Though it was really cool to see him match wits with Darth Vader in 2018’s Thrawn: Allegiances, that novel had a number of issues – Treason corrects the course in a satisfying way and digs deeper into the divided loyalties Thrawn has to the Empire and to his own Chiss Ascendancy. It’s really good, good enough to be on this list.

You can read my full review here.

Honorable Mentions:

Master and Apprentice by Claudia Grey – another Star Wars book, quite excellent; as it’s centered on Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn’s relationship, it’s a lot more fantasy than sci-fi because…Jedi. It’s really good, though, you’re welcome to read my review of it if you enjoy that.

I also listened to nine Horus Heresy novels! Some were entertaining, some weren’t, none of them are really all that great. Except for Fulgrim, which is absolute nonsense but in the best way possible. Or the worst way. Can’t quite tell.

For the Emperor…?

Evil Revenge Of The Sith GIF by Star Wars - Find & Share on GIPHY

My 13 Favourite Fantasy Reads of 2019

First, let’s get over the rules. One: This is not my “Best of 2019” list. That list is coming at the end of January or the beginning of February. Some of the books that appear here will probably appear there, as well – and some won’t. I’m taking my time with it because I have about five really big releases I want to get through, including Abercrombie’s A Little Hatred. Two…One book per author! There you have it; let’s get on with it, shall we? Oh, and no numerals. None of that, thank you very much – all these are either 4.5 or 5 star reads. And all of them are fantasy – there’ll be a sci-fi bit later on, one hopes.

The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon

Benedict Patrick takes a sojourn away from the folklore-infested Yarnsworld series and pens a short, remarkably enjoyable standalone in a world as imaginative as anything I’ve come to expect from him. Add to the mix a likable lead by the name of Min, an elderly Samuel L. Jackson as her mentor, and a petty villain who will make you want to strangle him time and again, and you’ve got a memorable journey ahead of you.

I happen to adore the deliciously creepy tales of the Yarnsworld, but this portal fantasy really hit the right spot. Imaginative, short and striking a perfect balance between light-hearted exploration and matters of light and death, Benedict’s latest is a memorable adventure you don’t want to miss out on.

You can find my full review here; for my recent interview with Benedict, click here.

God of Gnomes by Demi Harper

This is probably my favourite debut of the year, and that’s saying something. This is the book that made me feel like a child again, standing over a strategy game with a lot of heart in it, and enjoying every last second. Humour, drama, action – you just don’t expect these things when you’re reading about a sentient gemstone. And yet, you get so much more.

You could adapt this into a Dungeon Keeper-style game with minimal issues and a bit of imaginative storytelling, and the world would be all the better for it. I could get a pitch done in three days, game developer person reading this – call me!

You can find the full review here.

The Gutter Prayer

Politics, magic, religion and alchemy all come to a head in The Gutter Prayer. Driven by a stellar cast of characters and an enviable imagination, this book is a must-read for fantasy lovers. 

I must commend the author for the glossary of delightful monstrosities within these pages, from the alchemists’ insane servants, the Tallowmen with their wax bodies and sharp axes:

Before they can get to it, the door opens and out comes a Tallowman. Blazing eyes in a pale, waxy face. He’s an old one, worn so thin he’s translucent in places, and the fire inside him shines through holes in his chest. He’s got a huge axe, bigger than Cari could lift, but he swings it easily with one hand. He laughs when he sees her and Rat outlined against the fire.

all the way to the Gullheads; from the cursed Stone Men who become stronger the more their deadly disease progresses, to The Fever Knight, a creature of nightmare held together within its plate armour. Oh, and if these aren’t enough, there’s also worm-people, the arcane and utterly disgusting Crawling Ones:

Its voice is oddly musical and warm, but behind it she can hear the flapping and slithering of the worms, like hot fat on a frying pan. “What, may we ask, brings you walking in the places beneath?” It extends a cloth-wrapped “hand” to Aleena and helps her up. She feels worms pop and squish beneath the cloth as she pulls herself upright.

Ew. The descriptions of all these creatures lean almost towards the grotesque but they are all so very excellent. The cover, too, is a work of art, capturing the tone of the book perfectly – illustrated by Richard Anderson and designed by Steve Panton, it is nothing short of exquisite. If you take a look at it, you’ll get an idea, a feeling of what exactly awaits and this is witness to the makings of a great book cover.

You can find my full review over here.

Priest of Lies by Peter McLean

Peter McLean’s fantasy Peaky Blinders doesn’t have the right to be as good as it is! I tell you, friends, I bloody love this series – it’s despicably dark and twisted and it forces protagonist Tomas so far out of his comfort zone that it’d be funny…if the world of politics he comes to inhabit wasn’t just as deadly as the world dominated by gang violence from predecessor Priest of Bones.

You can read my review here.

The Sword of Kaigen by M. L. Wang

This is the novel that emotionally shattered me. It’s ah…it’s probably my favourite book of the year, based on emotional punch alone. If I had any money to bet on a SPFBO 2019 winner, I’d bet them all on this one; don’t worry, fellow SPFBO judges, due to my obvious bias, I’m staying away from giving it an official score for booknest.eu’s part in the competition. It’s out of my hands – and I’m really hoping that the other nine finalists are as strong in terms of narrative and characters as this one is.

Here’s my review of it. (Booknest’s “Read” counter tells me this review has been read over 18 thousand times, which seems like an utterly insane number!)

Hero Forged by Josh Erikson

Josh Erikson is one of the finest narrators I’ve ever heard. That sucks, really – because he’s a writer, so you don’t have dozens upon dozens of novels narrated by him; instead, you only have two – Hero Forged and Fate Lashed. Luckily, Josh is also a word wizard, as evidenced by the fact that his urban fantasy series is fucking dope. I don’t particularly care for the subgenre, but I am crazy for Josh’s world – almost as crazy as for main characters Gabe and Heather!

Me, enjoying for Hero Forged

You can find my review here.

Wrath of Empire

I am burdened by the greatest wrath – I have not yet read the conclusion to McClellan’s series, Blood of Empire. And when Wrath was such an excellent book – a novel whose greatest strength are its characters, a novel as explosive as the gunpowder Brian’s Powder Mages snort in what sure feels like unhealthy quantities — but I’m sure they’re fine. Right?

My review of this excellent book, y’all can find here. (I’ll permit myself a brag here – when I posted it on r/fantasy, this review was hot! Great discussion over there!)

Occultist by Oliver Mayes

From my review:

Oliver Mayes’ debut novel, Occultist, has made a litRPG believer out of me, an accomplishment I wasn’t certain would ever be in the cards for me. All this, considering how each time I’d picked up a book in this particular subgenre of speculative fiction, I ended up walking away with devilishly bad impressions. In my experience, the litRPG genre suffers from several issues, the biggest of which are an over-reliance on nostalgia and a trend towards dense exposition, and I mean walls upon walls of text as unreadable as a bad 80’s AD&D module! But this isn’t about the subgenre as a whole, it’s about the first instalment in the Saga Online series, so let’s get into it!

I’m quoting myself now, that’s how bad ye olde ego has gotten.

The Hod King

If there’s a series that I expect to be read fifty years from now the way Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea is, for example, that would be Josiah Bancroft’s The Books of Babel. The Hod King is the third of four planned novels and it continues the adventure of Senlin and his merry band of pirates, adventurers, marauders, sky sailors, past and present and future wives, and – oh, even though I joke, I truly think it’s a brilliant work of fiction. I’m beyond excited to see it all come together with book #4. Will Bancroft stick the landing?

I reckon he just might.

You can read more about it here.

Never Die by Rob J Hayes

All throughout Never Die, Rob J. Hayes treats us readers with one badass fight after another; most of the main characters end up beating the living crap out of each other, or otherwise facing off through some convoluted challenge. The battles–and I can’t stress this enough (try as I might)–are like a shot of adrenaline through the system; if you’ve ever liked an anime battle, they will immediately feel familiar; and if you haven’t, they’ll still be cool as hell. Steel against steel, the sound of rifle fire and the smell of gunpowder, sweat and the metallic taste of blood – these are but a fraction of the images I came away with after reading this delightful novel.

Here’s my review of it.

Breaking Chaos by Ben Galley

In this final volume of the Chasing Graves trilogy, Ben Galley sees each of the myriad plotlines built over Chasing Graves and Grim Solace come to their fruition: Caltro Basalt, thief, locksmith and body-hopper extraordinaire at long last comes to embrace the role he’s tried time and again to swerve away from. Not that it’s painless. So very close to gaining his freedom, Caltro is again forced into playing different sides, listening to all their promises and trusting none of them.

The Dragon’s Banker by Scott Warren

As a reader with a bachelor’s degree in economics, I was the perfect audience for The Dragon’s Banker. The economics made sense and Warren seems to have a good grasp of how demand and supply work; he’s thought through all sorts of issues that the reader could’ve picked up on and works them in the story seamlessly and just at the right time. Some of main character Sailor Kestern’s most minor actions, at first, see great pay-off by the end of this 255-page read and in ways I didn’t necessarily expect.

My review can be found here.

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

While I haven’t written the essay I’ve been meaning to about the relationship between Wizard of Earthsea’s main character Ged and priestess Tenar, I think The Tombs of Atuan is nothing short of a magical sequel, which does as many interesting things about fantasy as Wizard did, in many different ways. This is a novel of equality, of taking charge of your fate, of finding friendship in the darkest hours in your life. There’s good reason why Le Guin’s Earthsea is considered a classic, a novel that’s very much shoulders above most of the genre at the time of its publication, whose messages have lost none of its relevance nearly fifty years later.

You can read my A Wizard of Earthsea: Yesteryear’s Magic is all the More Potent essay here!

This is it! My end-of-year fantasy list! Thank you to everyone for sticking around with my blog – this year has been incredibly fun in terms of books, blogging, making friends in the community. Looking forward to 2020 with you all!

The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan – Book Review

This review was originally posted over at booknest.eu.

Series: The Black Iron Legacy # 1
Published by: Orbit
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Grimdark, High Fantasy
Pages: 544 (kindle edition)
Review Format: e-book
Purchased Copy.

I enjoy playing catch-up at year’s end – time is ever a limited resource and great books fall through the cracks more often than I’d like. One such prime example is The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, the first part in The Black Iron Legacy sequence, a wildly imaginative work. This is the author’s debut and it has put Hanrahan on just about every book blogger’s radar, at least in my tiny corner of the internet. Many have called it “the best debut of 2019” and now that I’ve read it, I can see why.

The Gutter Prayer is immensely imaginative, one of the first books I would hand over to someone who used to love fantasy but has gotten worn down by the conventions of the genre. It is an ambitious novel, unafraid to tackle the nature of gods and their relationship with their faithful, as well as economic inequality, the effects on deadly disease ravaging through the populace and more.

Guerdon is a fully realized city, every detail you could ask for mapped out and integrated into a heterogenous whole. I wouldn’t say it’s seamlessly done – no great city, no harbor port town in our own history could be described as seamless in that sense – but it is masterfully executed. This is a city of industry, with all that comes with that, from the shit-filled gutters and quarters dominated by crime and poverty and the stone plague to the homes of the middle-class and the boroughs of the rich, all the way to the city-within-a-city that is the Alchemist guild’s district. And that’s not even touching on the catacombs and tunnels down below, housing their own chthonic horrors…

So much is at play here, and it is slowly revealed through the eyes of an increasing cast of stellar characters, the first among which is a gutter rat of a thief called Cari, the lost daughter of a once-prominent Guerdon family. Cari is angry, brash and vengeful but above all else, she is as unlucky as they come, as before too long at all, she finds herself under the assault of strange, nightmarish visions whose appearance spells a great deal of trouble not only for Cari but for the city entire.

Her two friends, Spar and Rat – a Stone Man and a ghoul, respectively – further complicate matters. Spar is afflicted with a disease that slowly turns him to stone from the inside out. Before too long, he will be a prisoner of his own body, a living statue dependent on the mercy of others, until his lungs, his heart, his veins and blood also harden and calcify and he expires. The only stop-gap measure is an alchemical compound known as alkahest, expensive and difficult to get unless given directly by the Alchemist Guild; which is why so many Stone Men work as manual labourers for the Guild. But Spar doesn’t work for the alchemists– no, he’s part of the Brotherhood, a Thieves’ Guild, if you will, once under the control of Spar’s father Igde – an idealist who exemplified the romantic Robin Hood mentality of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor –  but now under new, far more cutthroat, less idealistic management. I didn’t necessarily like Spar for the first half of the novel; he’s hard-headed and obstinate, just like his decisions. But he grew on me, just like that crystalline formation keeps growing on him, taking away the physical boundaries of his humanity one inch at a time.

The ghoul, Rat, is a young member in a race of psychopomps, creatures that feed not only on dead flesh but on the souls of the dead, delivering them to the bosom of the Keeper gods, one would think. They’re a fun lot, ghouls are, and Rat most of all.

Ghouls love their eldritch mysterious stairwells descending infinitely into fucking shit-and-mushroom town.

Other characters also loan us readers their headspace – Jere, a thief-taker; an assistant at the university of Guerdon; a saint or two. These myriad viewpoints allow for a depth of experiences within the world, a mapping out of the different layers of society within this city. It’s downright Dickensian in how Guerdon is itself not only the battleground of so many different ways of life trying to assert themselves over the others, but a main character in its own right.

The city hasn’t slept. It staggers, drunktired, into the new day, uncertain of everything and looking for a fight.

Written in the present tense, it might take you a chapter or three of getting used to if you’re as used to reading in the past tense as I am but it’s certainly no hindrance to the enjoyment of The Gutter Prayer. I suspect Hanrahan chose it in order to further reinforce the feeling of immediacy in the action that often dominates the pages of the novel.

I must commend the author for the glossary of delightful monstrosities within these pages, from the alchemists’ insane servants, the Tallowmen with their wax bodies and sharp axes:

Before they can get to it, the door opens and out comes a Tallowman. Blazing eyes in a pale, waxy face. He’s an old one, worn so thin he’s translucent in places, and the fire inside him shines through holes in his chest. He’s got a huge axe, bigger than Cari could lift, but he swings it easily with one hand. He laughs when he sees her and Rat outlined against the fire.

all the way to the Gullheads; from the cursed Stone Men who become stronger the more their deadly disease progresses, to The Fever Knight, a creature of nightmare held together within its plate armour. Oh, and if these aren’t enough, there’s also worm-people, the arcane and utterly disgusting Crawling Ones:

Its voice is oddly musical and warm, but behind it she can hear the flapping and slithering of the worms, like hot fat on a frying pan. “What, may we ask, brings you walking in the places beneath?” It extends a cloth-wrapped “hand” to Aleena and helps her up. She feels worms pop and squish beneath the cloth as she pulls herself upright.

Ew. The descriptions of all these creatures lean almost towards the grotesque but they are all so very excellent. The cover, too, is a work of art, capturing the tone of the book perfectly – illustrated by Richard Anderson and designed by Steve Panton, it is nothing short of exquisite. If you take a look at it, you’ll get an idea, a feeling of what exactly awaits and this is witness to the makings of a great book cover.

Something that left a bit of a negative impression – I spied quite a few typos, an unusual number for an Orbit-published book. Something that could be cleaned up from the ebook and future reprints but at this point, I’m wondering whether to start offering my services as a copyreader.

Politics, magic, religion and alchemy all come to a head in The Gutter Prayer. Driven by a stellar cast of characters and an enviable imagination, this book is a must-read for fantasy lovers. My score for Hanrahan’s debut is 5/5 stars. 

Not my Father's Son by Alan Cumming – Mini Book Review

I love listening to the autobiographies of my favourite actors and comedians. Kevin Hart, John Cleese, Felicia Day, Amanda Palmer, all have put out such engrossing, fascinating reads. I couldn’t get enough of them!

When I joined Twitter I described myself as “Scottish elf trapped inside a middle aged man’s body” and I still think that’s accurate.

Despite this cheery description, Alan Cumming’s Not My Father’s Son is a considerably heavier book than some of the abovementioned authors’ works, though if you know Alan’s work and the flamboyant personality he puts forward into the world, you won’t be surprised by the generous helping of humour which follows or precedes each of Alan’s stories about his abusive monster of a father.

The recollections of these memories are interwoven with the events of Alan’s shot for the British series Who Do You Think You Are across a few months in 2010. For those who, like me, might be unfamiliar with these BBC series, Who Do You Think You Are digs into the family history of a famous Brit and reveals herefore-unknown secrets to the guest in question. It’s a fascinating experience for the star around which the episode is centered, as their reaction at finding out old family mysteries are caught on camera. This secondary story is about Alan’s grandfather, Tommy Darling, a soldier in WW2 who died under mysterious circumstances.

Despite some mind-blowing revelations along the way, what struck home with me is that Alan manages to extract important lessons from even the most negative experiences. He doesn’t allow the past to form him into a man as weak as his father; he uses it as fuel to grow and be better. To me, that’s what this book should’ve been and I’ll happily give it my recommendation to any fan of the biography genre.

Mechanicum (Horus Heresy # 09) by Graham McNeill – Book Review

This review was originally posted over at booknest.eu.

Graham McNeill seems to me the most consistent of all the Black Library authors working on the Horus Heresy series. I put aside Dan Abnett here, whose abilities as a writer I hold in high esteem over the excellent Eisenhorn trilogy. This is the third Heresy novel I’ve read written by McNeill, and it’s the third one I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.

 Here are a few commonalities between all McNeill’s Heresy novels so far:

  • They move the overall plot of the Heresy along. False Gods showed Horus’ corruption; Fulgrim was the most WarHammer 40k book I’ve ever read, with all the gleeful corruption of Chaos and ultraviolence and the purple prose which was most certainly written to fit the ridiculousness that is the Emperor’s Children legion and to play on this whole meta aspect  – and you can take that to the bank, Mr Rob Hayes’ hat! (Love you, Rob)
  • They’ve got characters who do not bore the life out of me. Looking at you, Battle for the Abyss.
  • The narration is always to die for. I needed a third point, okay? These bulletpoints must always go in threes at the least, doncha know?!

These all certainly earn McNeill some credit*. But even if this was the first book of his I’d read in the Heresy series, I’d still have enjoyed it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m conscious of a number of issues which don’t make sense to me either because I’m not steeped deep enough into the lore of this mega-event, or because McNeill and co. didn’t quite think things through when they were moving all the different plot pieces in planning the greater span of the Horus Heresy.  

In terms of characters, there were a few memorable ones. First among them is the Forge Mistress Koriel Zeth, who is a proud bearer of the torch of scientific progress passed down since the Enlightenment, prob’ly, a torch that is doomed to be swallowed by the torrential sea of Chaos during the Heresy. I really liked Zeth for her irreverence towards the nonsense of the Machine God and her ambition to unlock the secrets of the universe, for her willingness to sacrifice everything to stand against zealotry and all the dark horrors seeping into Mars under the direction of Kelbor-Hal, Fabricator General of Mars.

As likable as her but for many different reasons is Dalia Cythera, a girl from Earth who has an intuitive understanding of the workings of technology. Saved from a cruel death sentence for fiddling with technology (making it better) by Zeth, Dalia finds herself in the middle of Mars’s deadliest conflict yet.  Around her is a nice cast of supporting characters, most of them hardly what you’d call deep, since there’s plenty more going on than just Dalia’s storyline. They do their jobs quite well, though, as Dalia ends up fulfilling a dangerous, important role that sadly seems to never be referenced again in any other Warhammer 30-40k book. Aw, shucks.

On the other side of things, we’ve got…MECHS. Pardon, Titan Legions waging war on one another. It’s entertaining and entirely forgettable. Seriously, I finished this one about two months ago and I can’t even recall the name of our PoV character. I liked him! I can remember that much; it’s just that his storyline is your average tale of glory, heroism and sacrifice that’s to be expected of the setting.

My biggest issue with this here book is – all of this is happening on Mars, Earth’s literal back porch  and not until the end of the book does it seem as if anyone is willing to check out what’s going on with the neighbours. And when the big wigs over at Earth do notice something is wrong, they send a punitive force that roughly equates to a five-year-old with a stick coming into the Martian neighbour’s yard to put an end to a drunken brawl. Blimey, this Horus Heresy really is a mess sometimes.

Other than that, The Mechanicum was really quite solid. I was entertained throughout, which is why I’m happy to give it a 3.5/5, which I will helpfully bump up to 4 stars on Goodreads – I’m such a nice guy, aren’t I? It’s a good read, if you can ignore the glaring elephant in the room – our very own planet, Earth.

You might enjoy this one if you like:

  • the Adeptus Mechanicus, aka those weird robot fellas who knock on your door and always try to sell you on “Our Lord and Saviour, the Machine God”;
  • Mechs. Just…mechs;
  • Some real cool characters, actually;
  • and last but certainly not least, loads and loads of heresy;
  • Oh, and more! Prob’ly.

 HEEEEEEEREEEEEEESYYYY

*What’s with me and finance today? I still can’t live down The Dragon’s Bankerby Scott Warren. Now there’s a fun fantasy if you need one!  Oh, also, if you want to read my thoughts on some of the other Horus Heresy books, you can check my blog out, The Grimoire Reliquary. They’re not reviews, per se but I recall complaining loudly about some of the novels.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Book Review

What’s there to say about this one that hasn’t been said before?

Vonnegut is among the quintessential American authors, someone who, despite writing science fiction, transcended the stigmata of SF without difficulty, entered popular American consciousness and hasn’t left it since. Its message strongly abhors the very notion of war, decries the brutalities of it and relates the horrors of the Second World War in bloodcurdling detail. It’s not an easy book to read or listen to, not even with James Franco’s voice relating the events Billy Pilgrim goes through. Billy Pilgrim, unstuck through time, going back to World War 2 and forth into the sweet unknown; Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist. Billy Pilgrim, prisoner-of-war in Dresden, shoved forth into Slaughterhouse-Five with the rest of them, along with one Kurt Vonneghut, though he himself never makes use of the name.

“And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”

Billy Pilgrim, who is kidnapped to Tralfamadore and stuffed into their zoo along with a woman he comes to love. Billy Pilgrim, who knows the hour and the method of his own death, and knows it is predestined, and does not fool himself into believing in the folly of free will*.

So it goes.

What’s between the covers of Slaughterhouse-Five is real. It’s anger and it’s fury and maybe it’s helplessness, too, at the perpetual cycle that churns out war and its injustices. Monstrous, terrible as they are. Vonnegut shows it how it is; no glory can be found amidst the mud and ice – only the illusion of it in the eyes of the vainglorious prick Roland Weary, whose pettiness and cruelty plant a seed the poisonous fruit of which eventually results in the death of a good man.

It is also a critique of America, in two of the most poignant paragraphs I have read in recent memory:

“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.”

These words were true when Vonnegut wrote them, and they resonate so much stronger today. I fear they will resonate stronger yet tomorrow, and tomorrow, and the one after it, as well.

Strange, perhaps, that I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I enjoyed the Sirens of Titan. But I appreciate its merits; appreciate, even, that it has more merits than Sirens does. I’ll always remember 2019 for Vonnegut, for this and Sirens and perhaps Breakfast of Champions, if I manage to get through it before the closing of the year.

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* But these are not Vonnegut’s beliefs; just because his main character believes it, and the Tralfamadorians believe it, doesn’t make it so, my friends. The only reason I mention this is, Vonnegut seems to have gotten a lot of flack for it in the past.

Oh, and do I even need to tell you how great James Franco does as narrator? No. No, I don’t.