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Joe Abercrombie - Half A KingAuthor: Joe Abercrombie

Title: Half A King

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Hardback: 373 pages

ISBN: 978-0-00-755020-3

Price: £12.99

Publication Date: 03/07/2014


When it was first announced that Joe Abercrombie was to write a YA novel, I have to admit that my reaction was one of surprise. His previous novels have all been what would be best described as ‘very adult’ in tone, theme and style. But, when I thought about it, I began to wonder whether my initial reaction was borne out from the categorisations that the publishing industry has imposed on fantasy over the last decade and a half, which has attempted to delineate between children’s, YA and adult books.

Because, when I was first truly exploring the breadth of fantasy – as a pre-teenager  almost two decades ago – I was reading David Gemmell, Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin (amongst many others). All of whom often had fairly young protagonists – either as the main focus of the works, or, as with someone like Martin, in very major roles. And these writers all wrote books that were often filled with fairly adult content – yet, as a young reader, they felt like books that I wanted to read entirely because they presented very murky, unsterilised worlds. Which, for me, on the cusp of teenagerdom, was both exciting and liberating.

So I approached Half A King with an interested fascination. I knew that Abercrombie was likely to have to temper some of the more excessive elements to his ‘adult’ fantasy, but was equally keen to see whether he would bring his gritty edge to a coming-of-age, ‘YA’ novel.

A tale of betrayal and a quest for revenge, this novel shares similarities in plot to my favourite of Abercrombie’s oeuvre, Best Served ColdSet in a pseudo-Viking-age fantasy world, Half A King focusses on Prince Yarvi, the youngest son of the King of Gettland. Having been born with a twisted and maimed hand on one side – which makes him unfit to fight, a pre-requisite in this warrior society – Yarvi is seen as only half a man. Physical impositions on his characters is a long-running theme in Abercrombie’s books, and Yarvi is forced to rely on his mental acuity to compensate for the fact that, unlike Monza Murcatto in Best Served Cold, he cannot take his revenge personally at the point of a blade.

Instead, having seen his father and brother murdered, and having been betrayed himself and presumed dead, Yarvi finds himself enslaved upon a merchant ship and far from home. There he must try to plot his escape and a way in which to gain his revenge and reclaim the throne.

Much of the book therefore revolves around Yarvi’s attempts to escape his chained collar and draw together a band of friends and allies who will help him traverse the Shattered Sea to return to Gettland. Now, it is in this aspect that this novel feels most dissimilar with Abercrombie’s previous novels. For the journey back, and the incidents that break up that journey, happen in a manner that comes across as quite plotted. By which I mean that elements that are required to advance the flow of the plot often happen very close together, in a very neat manner. The problem here is that Abercrombie is obviously under constraints to make the novel fit within the parameters of what a younger reader would be able to read in terms of novel length.

And this is a double-edged sword. Because Abercrombie’s adult novels are usually huge, almost sprawling books. So, whilst the length of Half A King in one sense means that it avoids falling into the trap of being too big, there are a few times when the brevity between major sequences means that it almost feels a little watered down. Nevertheless, this is really my only slight gripe about the book.

Because the writing is fantastic and Yarvi’s development as a character, from naive innocent to a more ruthless and focussed individual is achieved with skill and believability. And, whilst there were elements of the plot that I could predict quite easily, the main twist at the conclusion was expertly handled – so much so that I really didn’t see it coming.

And, whilst much of the language and violence that one would associate with Abercrombie is here toned down, the underlying themes of the cynicism of the world and the morally ambiguous nature of humankind are still very much present – along with some healthy doses of dark humour for good measure. So, whilst there is undoubtedly an element of Abercrombie holding back in this novel, with his younger audience in mind, it never detracts from the central plot and the characters are as realistically ambiguous and realistically flawed as you would expect. To be honest, within a few pages of starting this novel I was already chastising myself for ever questioning Abercrombie’s abilities to weave his themes into a YA novel, because this is a hugely enjoyable read. One that has a satisfying enough resolution for it to work as a standalone novel. Thankfully it is only the first in a trilogy of books set in the world of the Shattered Sea – and I cannot wait for the next instalment.

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GONE_GIRLAuthor: Gillian Flynn

Title: Gone Girl

Publisher: Phoenix

Paperback: 463 pages

ISBN: 978-0-7538-2766-6

Price: £7.99

Publication Date: 03/01/2013



At the outset of this review, I have a confession to make. When this novel first came out, and was picking up momentum as a bestseller, I took a conscious decision not to read it. To be completely honest, I had been reading quite a few psychological suspense novels at the time, and was rather keen to avoid reading any more ‘woman-in-peril’ novels. And so it sat on my shelf and gathered dust for the best part of a year and a half, until I decided to finally read it on a flight over the summer.

Why is this relevant to my review? Because, despite the rave reviews that this novel has received from all corners, I have to admit that I found myself curiously ambivalent towards it. And I suspect that part of that response may be due to my delaying of my reading of the book. For, when I finally came to open it, I had subconsciously built up an internal resistance to it – one which required the novel to be absolutely incredible for that semi-prejudice to be dispelled.

And, whilst the novel is undoubtedly well written, with a strong plot, good structure, filled with twists and overall a compelling and pact read, it never scaled the heights that it probably needed to win me over totally. So this is certainly not a negative review, but it also isn’t a totally positive review. I can completely see why the novel has been so successful across the world, and I read it in one sitting, but I found myself in a strange kind of mental limbo when trying to decipher my response to it – which is not something that I can often say about books that I read.

The plot itself, revolving around the sudden and mysterious disappearance of Amy Elliott Dunne and the subsequent suspicion that falls on her husband Nick Dunne, is a pretty well-worn set-up for the genre. There are signs of a struggle at the home that they both shared and Nick’s alibi is both patchy and fairly insubstantial. And as the plot develops, the reader becomes increasingly suspicious of Nick and his actions (as well as what we begin to suspect he is holding back). And the use of Nick as the primary narrative point-of-view character is in keeping with the usual parameters of the genre.

However, it is the introduction of an alternative POV from around the half-way point in the novel that marks Gone Girl from the competition. It is a very clever twist that completely alters the reader’s mind-set – especially in relation to all of the developments that have occurred in the first half of the book. And the twists that proliferate the novel means that the pace of the book is unrelenting, especially given the confident, assured manner in which the book is written.

But, for me personally, there were two main problems that stopped me from loving this book. The first was the characters. They are well drawn and brought out by the author. However, I also failed to empathise or like any of them, especially Nick. Now, I think that this is something that the author actively needed to do, in order for some of the major twists and reveals in the book to work – in particular the ones that paint Nick in a negative light and make the reader question him as a reliable narrator. But the problem is that, having failed to warm to Nick from the outset of the novel, these constant reveals meant that I was unable to ever emotionally attach myself to his predicament. And, as a result, I ended up not really caring about what was happening to him.

Allied to this, the majority of the characters who orbited Nick within the world of the novel were – in the majority – self-centred and difficult to like. So, personally, I found myself unable to truly invest myself in the characters’ themselves, with my interest focused on finding out how the plot was going to be resolved rather than what was going to happen to the characters. It is a subtle distinction, but for me an important one if I am going to completely commit to a read.

My second problem revolved around the ending. And, to be honest, this is not just something that is confined to Gone Girl, but is prevalent across the whole of the psychological suspense genre. More often than not, there seems to be a correlation between the number of twists that a book contains and the difficulties that this presents to the author when trying to create a satisfying ending. It often seems almost impossible for the author to achieve, and this novel was no exception. Because, to be frank, the ending was very difficult to believe – and the characters’ attempts to explain it through their different narrations made it even more difficult to stomach. It is difficult to explain without giving away the major part of the plot, but safe to say I didn’t feel that it felt satisfactory as a conclusion to what had gone before.

Overall I realise, from reading this review back, that it probably comes across as rather a negative view of Gone GirlBut this certainly isn’t what I was intending when sitting down to write it. Looking at this book from a  completely objective standpoint I can completely see why it has been so successful. It is well written, pacy, with some really clever plotting and twists. But ultimately, for the major twists of this novel to work it required characters who weren’t really that likeable. And, for me, this meant that the book’s major strength was inextricably linked to what I felt was its major weakness – that I couldn’t fully emotionally invest in any of the characters. Certainly not enough to turn a good read into a great read for me.

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Karin Slaughter - Cop TownAuthor: Karin Slaughter

Title: Cop Town

Publisher: Century

Hardback: 398 pages

ISBN: 978-1-846-05999-5

Price: £18.99

Publication Date: 17/07/2014


Having first experimented with a historical element back in 2012’s Criminal, Karin Slaughter has gone further in her most recent novel, Cop Town. Whilst Criminal used a dual, related set of story arcs – one set in the present and one forty years in the past – in Cop Town Slaughter has produced a novel that is completely historical.

Set in 1974 Atlanta, the novel revolves around two female characters. Kate Murphy, from a well-to-do family but recently widowed, is in her first week as a cop in the Atlanta police force. And Maggie Lawson – a young police patrolwoman from a family of male cops, but struggling to prove her worth in their eyes. When a brutal cop killing shakes the city, Kate and Maggie find themselves paired together (more through the fact that they are both quickly sidelined by their male colleagues). And against this backdrop of a town and era riven by gender, race and sexuality inequality they set about trying to hunt down a vicious killer, one who is stalking Kate.

Slaughter’s first full-length standalone, whilst very different in its historical setting, cleverly refrains from moving too far away from the elements that have made her previous novels so successful. Indeed, Cop Town uses many the elements that have worked so well in her Grant Count / Atlanta series. And, by and large, these work very well – although I did feel that the use of POV narrative for the killer, ‘Fox’, possibly wasn’t completely successful. In her modern-day crime novels, Slaughter has used this device as a means to get into the mind of her killers. However, for me, something about Fox just didn’t completely ring true – compared to the environs and other characters his voice felt a little too ‘modern’. But using the POV element did allow for some moments of incredible tension, so this was only a small gripe.

But the two main characters, Kate and Maggie, were both well-drawn and engaging, with their burgeoning partnership well developed. Although they are initially fairly antagonistic towards one another, as the reader you know that they are highly likely to become close. But Slaughter avoids making this shift from adversary to ally to quickly – which would be both unnatural and too plotted. Which allows for each of the characters to build up an impression of the other; impressions which are either eroded or proven true as the novel develops.

But, in a way, the third major ‘character’ of this book, is 1974 Atlanta. Slaughter has obviously done her research, but also manages to wear it lightly – so the plot moves forwards at a fair pace, with plenty of brutal violence and twists to keep her fans happy. Simultaneously though, it explores issues such as racism, sexism, police brutality, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the emergence of gay culture, and the independence of women – creating a fascinating and tumultuous milieu around which the central plot swirls.

And, whilst it was very informative and eye-opening, I also found myself having to constantly check to make sure that it really was writing about 1974. For, it was a year that was a little over a decade before I was born, and yet seems totally alien to me. I have no idea whether others orientate themselves in this manner, but I have always used my birth year as a means of contextualising ‘history’ in relationship to my own world experiences. And Cop Town really drove home the notion that what seems to me like history, is actually – in the grand scheme of things – not that far removed from the present day (and in many cases, issues that were writ large over 1974 Atlanta are still problems today).

However, for those who are already fans of Slaughter’s books, but are conversely not necessarily fans of historical fiction, I would give a reassurance. For Cop Town does not wear its history and issues in a heavy manner, and the hallmarks of Slaughter’s writing – snappy dialogue, fast plots and big reveals – are all there in abundance. It will be interesting to see how Slaughter proceeds beyond this book, as I certainly got the feeling when finishing the final pages that this standalone has the potential to be a series. And that would certainly be something to look forwards to.

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Mark Lawrence - Prince of ThornsAuthor: Mark Lawrence

Title: Prince of Thorns

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Paperback: 373 pages

ISBN: 978-0-00-742363-7

Price: £7.99

Publication Date: 12/04/2012


I have always been a little wary when an author’s book is compared to another author on the cover of a book. I understand having an author quotation praising the book on the cover, but an author comparison – for me at least – runs the risk of colouring the reader’s perception of the work before they have even begun to read. For, whilst we are always told never to judge a book by its cover, that is invariably what we are prone to doing. So, the reference to Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns being “on a par with George R.R. Martin” did play on my mind as I began the novel.

As a fan of Martin’s work, having been reading his Game of Thrones series since my adolescence – when I first found my way into the world of fantasy, it affected my reading of the first few chapters of Prince of Thorns. Because, whilst there are definitely parallels between Lawrence and Martin – in the gritty, violent nature of their plots and characters, and the sprawling, epic scope of their worlds – they are also very different. And, ultimately, I would say that they are both very good, but in differing and individual ways. Whilst Martin’s Game of Thrones is peopled by an (ever increasing, nigh on exponential) cast of characters, Lawrence’s debut novel is far more focussed – with Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath at its heart.

Jorg was a boy of nine when he saw his mother and brother brutally murdered in front of him by agents of Count Renar. And when we first meet him only a handful of years later he has run away from his home and is the ruthless leader of a band of sell-swords. And when I say that he is ruthless, I mean it. He and his men are responsible for brutal atrocities and, whilst Jorg is occasionally charming, it is the charm of a sociopath. To use a Game of Thrones analogy, Jorg has a Joffrey-like quality to him. At least at the outset of the novel.

To be honest, his amoral violence and tendencies make Jorg a very difficult character to empathise with. And with Jorg and his band of (not so merry) men committing acts usually reserved only for the most villainous of fantasy characters, I wouldn’t be surprised if some readers were unable to continue beyond the first few chapters. But for those who do, they will find that, whilst the novel is frequently disturbing, and Jorg never becomes what could in any way be described as ‘heroic’, his backstory and choices mean that the reader sees him evolve over the course of the book.

Set in the Broken Empire, the divided remains of a former society destroyed aeons before (which, from the technology that is sporadically discovered, we are led to believe was once a very high-tech world), a hundred warlords struggle for supremacy. And amongst them is Jorg, heir to a throne, but with grander ambitions still. To play the game and rise to rule the Broken Empire.

Lawrence writes with vivid and clear prose, and generally avoids describing the atrocities that Jorg has committed – instead alluding to them and leaving them up to the reader’s imagination and pre-conceived knowledge to fill in the gaps. Eschewing over-description the scenes are generally pared back, creating both a fast-paced read, but also avoiding the trap of over-doing the world-building. Instead the focus is upon Jorg and his evolving psyche, showing us the conflicted nature of his decisions and his aspirations – and constantly subverting everything that we thought we knew about Jorg as each new part of his hideous backstory is revealed.

And whilst the focus is undoubtedly firmly on Jorg, Lawrence also skilfully paints the secondary characters who make up the tapestry of the Broken Empire. The world-building is equally skilfully done, with the technology – nuclear weapons, watches, etc. – blending with religions and literature that we know. Christianity is mentioned frequently, as are the works of Sun Tzu, Socrates and Shakespeare. And yet, for all of these elements, the landscape and geography is wholly alien to our world – suggesting that some cataclysmic event has changed the world that we know (although this is never overtly spelt out). This all fuses together to create an unsettling world that is part-known to the reader, but also completely new – which is reminiscent of the world that Paul Hoffman created in The Left Hand of God.

Blood-soaked, brutal and unrelenting, this is fantasy very much in the gritty mould of George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie. Indeed, like Abercrombie, Lawrence seems to set some store in evidencing the brutality of the world physically on his protagonists through their scars. So Jorg, having fallen into a hook-briar bush when his mother and brother were being murdered, is covered in scars. And, in the second book in the series, King of Thorns, Jorg, like Abercrombie’s Caul Shivers, finds half of his face brutally fire-scarred.

Whilst I found it initially difficult to get in to the novel, due to Jorg’s amorality and actions, I ended up finding this a riveting and page-turning read. I can imagine that the harsher, nastier aspects of the characters and plot wouldn’t appeal to some readers – which isn’t a criticism as such, as it is what makes the novel so individual and different, but is certainly an aspect that will make this very much a book that some people will like, whilst others won’t. Similarly, I would imagine that the ‘technological’ aspects of the novel – especially in relation to a major event about two-thirds of the way through the novel – may strike some as a little coincidental and far-fetched (or, at the very least, a little un-fantasy-like).

Overall though I found this a very impressive and fresh fantasy debut, whose world and central character sets it apart from other series in the genre. Probably the best praise that I could give it is that as soon as I had finished reading the novel I downloaded the eBook of the second book in the series, King of Thorns, and finished it that same evening.

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Karin Slaughter - UnseenAuthor: Karin Slaughter

Title: Unseen

Publisher: Arrow

Paperback: 496 pages

ISBN: 978-0099571353

Price: £7.99

Publication Date: 5/06/2014

After Criminal, Slaughter’s previous novel, which spent its majority exploring the historical past, Unseen sees a move back to present day Georgia – and with it a return to the complicated relationship of the focal characters of the series, Sara Linton and Will Trent.

Moving away from the usual environs of Atlanta, the novel takes place, for the most part, in Macon, Georgia, and reintroduces Sara’s nemesis, Lena Adams. When Lena and her husband, Jared Long (the son of Sara’s deceased husband – hence, in part, the antipathy between the two women), are attacked in their home by two bikers, Jared is shot and Lena must fight the would-be-assassins off. It is a brutal and extremely violent opening, with the use of a claw hammer being described in shuddering detail. But as Lena goes to deliver the coup de grâce she finds herself stopped by a third biker…Will Trent.

As is soon revealed to the reader, GBI agent (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) Will has been working undercover in Macon after a tip from Lena, posing as a violent, motorcycle-riding ex-con named Bill Black. But he has decided to keep his whereabouts a secret from Sara (being that he is undercover, this isn’t a complete surprise. But when she is called by Jared’s mother and comes to be at his bedside, you know that Will’s silence is not going to end well for their nascent and dysfunctional relationship!).

What initially seems to be a simple home invasion is quickly shown to be part of a far wider and far darker investigation into a mysterious local kingpin referred to as ‘Big Whitey’ (being honest, this moniker isn’t really the most terrifying that you would expect from someone with a last name of Slaughter, but there you go!). And much of the plot proper arises in the aftermath of a high-target police raid that was led by Lena herself – flashback sequences are dotted throughout the novel, although Slaughter is careful to only include them as and when they are necessary to the development of the plot. Which allows her to drip-feed information – and revelations – to the reader. The one downside to this is that I sometimes felt that the flashbacks felt a little incongruous and slightly too plotted in their placement. But it was a problem that there isn’t really a solution to – other than having them all at the outset, which would ruin any form of suspense and mystery!

It is a complex plot and set-up and, being completely honest, I was a little confused at the outset as to exactly why Will and the GBI were involved. But as the chapters went by and more flashbacks were introduced, it began to get clearer, certainly in my own mind. So I’m not sure whether I just wasn’t paying enough attention when I started the novel, or whether the plot itself is a little confused (I will give the author the benefit of the doubt and blame it on myself!).

But the plot itself is somewhat of a backdrop for the main feast of the novel – the interrelationship between the various characters. As a big fan of Slaughter’s work, it has been interesting to see her style and novels develop. Her earlier books were marked for their extreme, almost over-the-top, violence. But her more recent novels feel more mature and emotionally connected, with their focus subtly shifting away from the crimes themselves to instead focus upon the characters. For me, the catalyst for this shift has been Will Trent.

Through his undercover persona of Black we see a different side to Will, one removed from his normal three-piece suits. You almost feel that it is the person that he would have been if he hadn’t gone into law enforcement. And his dysfunctional relationship with Sara and their inability to communicate with one another adds a further layer of intrigue to the book.

On a personal level I am still unsure about Sara Linton as a character. There is something about her that feels a little detached and icy and I have never totally liked her. But it was pleasing to see the return of the spiky Lena Adams – a character around whom chaos and violence seems to swirl effortlessly. Previously I have never really empathised with her as a character; she has, for the most part, been used as a lightning rod for Sara’s anger. But here she is far more interestingly drawn, and I found myself sympathising with her, especially with regards to the manner in which she is treated by Sara.

Undoubtedly all of the elements that I have mentioned in relation to the interactions between the characters – and their pasts – does require one to have read the previous novels in the series. However, that isn’t to say that someone couldn’t come to Unseen without having read any of Slaughter’s previous books. It is an addictive and well-written read, with Slaughter capturing the feel and crackling heat and violence of Georgia’s milieu. The narrative and dialogue are razor-sharp, with plenty of pace and twists along the way.

I did work out who ‘Big Whitey’ was quite a while before the big reveal, and the last chapters of the novel did feel a little too neat and perfect in terms of pulling everything together. But overall it was another strong addition to the series and a compelling and pacy read.

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Harlan Coben - Six YearsAuthor: Harlan Coben

Title: Six Years

Publisher: Orion

Paperback: 358 pages

ISBN: 978-1-4091-0394-3

Price: £7.99

Publication Date: 27/02/14


The one thing that has always set Harlan Coben’s thrillers apart is his ability not only to create an original and compelling premise, but also to maintain that premise to its conclusion. All too often novels in this genre have clever, intriguing set-ups, but end in a manner that feels forced or leaves the reader dissatisfied – suggesting that the author was unable to find a suitable means of resolving the twists and turns that have evolved throughout the preceding pages. And so there is always a certain degree of in-built scepticism – certainly on my part – when beginning a book in this genre.

In Six Years the novel’s hook revolves around a promise. Six years ago (unsurprisingly, given the title!) college professor Jake Fisher watched the love of his life, Natalie, marry another man (and only a day after she had dumped poor old Jake). And for six years he has kept his promise to Natalie and stayed away from her and her husband (which I would probably find pretty easy if I had been dumped and replaced in such ignominious circumstances, but then I’m not a big old romantic like Jake!). But when Jake sees an obituary for Natalie’s husband, he can’t keep his promise any more. But at the funeral Jake discovers a different grieving widow in Natalie’s place. And no-one seems to know anything about Natalie. Of course, and thankfully for the reader, as otherwise the novel would be no more than a handful of chapters – ! – Jake sets out to unravel the mystery…

As a premise it is undoubtedly both clever and intriguing. As a reader, you want to know who this other woman is, and indeed, whether Jake himself is an entirely reliable narrator. The pace is always quick and the twists and turns and revelations come thick and fast. Allied to this, the prose avoids unecessary flowery, artistic flair – it is certainly more on the functional side, but this works well in keeping the pace high and the pages turning. Which probably works to the novel’s advantage. Because it allowed me to overlook a few slightly unlikely twists and coincidental happenings that allowed the plot to continue moving.

And at the heart of the novel is Jake Fisher, a likeable and decent everyman hero (well, if every man was six-foot-five and built like a line-backer – a fact that we are told a little too often, inasmuch as it became a little repetitive). But he does provide humour and an emotional touchpoint – as the only time that we get to see anything of Natalie is her breaking Jake’s heart, so we are very much reliant on empathising with him and thus buying into his love for her. And that he would be willing to face danger and potential death in order to investigate the dark and deadly secret that drives the plot forwards.

For a thirty-five-year-old professor there were a few times when Jake felt quite a bit older in his speech and mannerisms, and it was a little cliched that he was a handsome and dashing college professor (although this was acknowledged and played up to very early on in the novel with a reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark).

And as mentioned previously, coincidence, along with a magically disappearing / reappearing iPhone, do play slightly problematic roles in the book. Furthermore, if you have read any of Coben’s oeuvre before then you will have a pretty good notion as to the novel’s outcome – if not necessarily as to the manner in which this will come about. But these are mere quibbles in the grand scheme of the book. Once I was snared in by the opening chapter there was no way that I was going to stop until I had finished – and I read the book in one sitting.

This is certainly not a novel that will reinvent the conspiracy thriller wheel, but it is written by an author who knows how to keep the reader enthralled and how to develop a plot. A perfect read for the summer months.

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Black SailsAs a self-confessed fan of Starz’s other ‘historical’ televisual offerings, Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Da Vinci’s Demons, it is fair to say that the announcement that they were to turn their hands to the pirate genre was one that filled me with glee – especially when I learnt that it was to be a quasi-prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

And, with Black Sails having now arrived in port [I promise that I will keep the sea-faring and piratical puns to an absolute minimum!], how did it fare?

There has been a vogue, especially in relation to televisions shows in the last few years, to produce what would best be described as series that are ‘mature’ in their content. Game of Thrones really brought this into the mainstream and Starz, through Spartacus and Da Vinci’s Demons, have continued to push the envelope. Indeed, it could be said that the aforementioned shows focused almost exclusively on its sex, violence and expletive-filled language – often to the detriment of the shows themselves [at least in my opinion].

That isn’t to say that Black Sails doesn’t follow in this tradition [because it undoubtedly does], but that it seems to be a lot more careful in its use of them [with the exception of swearing - after all, this is about pirates!]. Which means that, unlike Spartacus which often felt like a sex and violence fuelled show that required some kind of plot to link those scenes, Black Sails’ pilot felt like a plot-driven show which required bouts of violence and sex. It is a subtle difference, but one that I – personally – was grateful for.

As mentioned before, the plot itself is set-up as a prequel to Stevenson’s Treasure Island, with Captain Flint’s ship the Walrus on the hunt for a Spanish treasure galleon carrying unimaginable riches. As the plot for a pirate adventure this isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel, and it is fair to say that Black Sails could never be called amazingly original.

Although, to be honest, this is something that could be levelled at the Starz channels stable as a whole [Spartacus was basically Gladiator and Da Vinci's Demons was frighteningly similar to Assassin's Creed II]. Similarly, Black Sails borrows liberally from the pirate oeuvre as a whole, and comes suspiciously quickly on the tail of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

But what made Black Sails so enjoyable for me [as a fan of pirate history and lore] was the manner in which the fictional was blended with the historical – although I stop short of claiming any of it to be factually accurate! So, we find Captain Flint, Billy Bones and John Flint [here sans peg leg and parrot and very much in possession of a lustrous fall of pre-Raphaelite locks and some of the brightest pearly whites that ever traversed the Seven Seas] rubbing shoulders with Charles Vane, ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham and Anne Bonny. Which made the childish part of me that used to while away hours playing with my Playmobil pirate ship and make tea-stained treasure maps resurface for the hour of the pilot episode…

Black-Sails-Starz

Added to this, the Michael Bay-produced series has fantastically high production values [other than one early 'panoramic' ocean view, which appeared to have been made on an incredibly budget laptop and was so singularly laughable that I had to re-watch it a few times]. The sets look impressive and immersive, and there seems to have been a conscious effort to tone down the pirate stereotype language / mannerisms that could have had the potential to turn this into a farce.

As a pilot, it moved along at a brisk pace, packing in fights, bawdy drinking scenes, torture and culminating in a suitably bloody duel, in which Captain Flint was forced to face down a would-be-challenger to his captaincy – and ends with the challenger getting his head beaten in with a cannonball.

That’s not to say that there weren’t mis-steps in the pilot episode. At times, the need to introduce new characters led to some rather clunky dialogue, and some slightly forced and unrealistic scenes. And it certainly didn’t feel like the most original fare to hit the small screens. Nevertheless, it had a suitably gritty quality, and managed to avoid the seemingly obligatory Aaarghs and parrots that populate most piratical adaptations post-Treasure Island. And I didn’t see a single eye-patch, peg leg, or hook-hand in the whole of the episode – which must be a turn-up for the books. On the flip-side of that, I think that even TOWIE possesses less fake tan and shiny teeth than the pirates of Black Sails – apparently dentistry was ahead of its time in the eighteenth century!

Is there treasure at the end of this series? On the evidence of the pilot there may very well be and I’ll be stowing myself aboard for the journey.

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A Justified End

Justified

It was announced this week that Justified would end after its sixth season [its fifth season recently began in the States]. Interestingly – and refreshingly in this day and age – it was the show’s producers and showrunners, rather than its US broadcasters – FX – who took the decision to end the series. In a way, for fans, this is probably the best way for it to end – as it means that its writers will be allowed to tie-up storylines and will avoid the unfinished cliffhanger scenario that often arises when it is the broadcaster who takes the decision to end a series.

Nevertheless, as a huge fan of the series it will be a huge disappointment to see the series and set of characters disappear from the screen, as it is undoubtedly one of the coolest and most charismatic cop shows around. Based on Elmore Leonard’s laconic, Kentucky-based US Marshal Raylan Givens, it has always been rather underrated, but is filled with the razor-sharp dialogue that was Leonard’s forte, along with a motley crew of villains, heroes and anti-heroes. Indeed, so cool was the original 2010 first season that it led me to dust off my cowboy boots and start wearing them again!

Now I will just have to soak up and enjoy the final two series of this most special of shows, and one that I would heartily recommend to anyone looking for a quality show.

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The Left Hand of GodAuthor: Paul Hoffman

Title: The Left Hand of God

Publisher: Penguin

Paperback: 437 pages

ISBN: 978-0-141-33355-7

Price: £7.99

Publication Date: 06/01/2011

Thomas Cale, The Left Hand of God’s fourteen-year-old protagonist, was brought to the dark and labyrinthine Sanctuary of the Redeemers when only a few years old. Half monastery, half brutal military training ground, the Sanctuary is a breeding ground for young warrior-monks. Basically a dark Hogwarts! A place of violence, deprivation and cruelty, it is run by the Redeemers – religious fanatics who rule with an iron-fist and use Inquisition-style methods to implement their ‘teachings’.

And Cale is one of their star pupils. Until one day he opens the wrong door at the wrong time and witnesses something so horrific that he knows that he must flee the vast and remote Sanctuary…or die.

The opening chapters in the Sanctuary of the Redeemers are really strong – claustrophobic, gothic and dark. Reminiscent of the oppressive environs of the Benedictine monastery in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, I found Hoffman’s descriptions of the Redeemer’s customs and surroundings completely gripping. In particular, the sadistic, quasi-father-son relationship between Bosco and Cale was brilliantly drawn and fascinating.

The problem though, was that as Cale and his companions escaped from the Sanctuary, I found the world-building becoming less focused. Within the structured, closed-off walls of the Sanctuary, it felt as though the interplay between the Redeemers and Mediaeval Christianity was far more tightly controlled and thought through by the author. But once outside of those walls, the level of detail given to describing the world in which Cale [who had no previous memories of living outside the Sanctuary] now found himself, felt a little underwhelming. It is, in essence, a quasi-Mediaeval world, with references to Spanish and Dutch culture and locations, although it is kept quite vague as to exact locations and there is no map in the novel to aid the reader in relation to how the world is set up.

Added to this, I sometimes found that the way in which the plot evolved in the last third of the novel ended up feeling slightly jumpy – and that the book almost felt a little on the short side [certainly by fantasy standards]. And this was especially true when comparing the Materazzi sections of the book with the far more assured and detailed opening half of the book in the Sanctuary. It felt as though the second half of the book, the relationships and the plotlines, could have been fleshed out much more.

But my biggest personal gripe came from the use of a third-person omniscient narratorial voice. Maybe it is just my inner pedant, but I have always railed against the use of wandering POV – where an author flits between the interiority of multiple characters within a single scene. And, for me, I just felt that the narratorial voice used in The Left Hand of God just made the action all feel a little removed and distant from the reader [something that might not have been the case had Hoffman used first-person narration to bring the reader inside specific character’s interiorities].

That being said, and despite these reservations, I did enjoy The Left Hand of God, and will definitely be reading the next books in the trilogy. But I felt that, after the really strong and intriguing opening to the novel, it didn’t quite carry through on that promise in quite the manner that I had hoped that it would. So, in the end, I felt that this was a strong and enjoyable read – based on a really clever premise and with lots of gritty action and characterization – but that it didn’t quite make that step up to something more.

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Erin Morgenstern - The Night CircusAuthor: Erin Morgenstern

Title: The Night Circus

Publisher: Vintage

Paperback: 490 pages

ISBN: 978-0-099-55479-0

Price: £7.99

Publication Date: 24/05/2012


Occasionally – oh, so very occasionally – one reads a book so magical and brilliant that you never want the reading experience to end, and where turning the last page and reading the last line is both a pleasurable and a painful moment. The Night Circus was just such a book for me.

Vivid and rich in its imagination, this was a novel that I devoured in one sitting, borne along by Morgenstern’s beautifully crafted writing style and incredibly visual, lush and evocative descriptions of the book’s world.

The novel, as the title would suggest, revolves around a circus – one which performs a specific role. For it is the location in which a rivalry that has played out over countless generations is being fought. The two rivals are magicians of undefined but certainly magically enhanced lifespans – one is a public performer, Hector Bowen, who goes by the stage name of Prospero the Enchanter; the second remains unnamed throughout the book. And their profound rivalry has been played out over countless generations by appointed pupils.

In The Night Circus, set in the late 19th century, Bowen elects his six-year-old daughter Celia, while his adversary chooses a nameless nine-year-old orphan who he names Marco Alisdair. From that moment forth the two children will  be bound into a lifelong duel, unwitting pawns in a game, the parameters of which are never fully explained to them; and for years, as they grow up and are taught by their ‘masters’, they do not know their adversaries.

The circus which will be the scene of their lifelong battle, is known both as the Night Circus and Le Cirque des Rêves, and is the brainchild of a theatrical producer named M Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre. But it is also the creation of Marco and Celia, both of who, over the years, become passionately involved in its performances, acts, and participants, as well as – inevitably – with each other.

Watching Celia and Marco grow into their roles – and watching them grow as characters and lovers – was a joy, but what sets this book apart is the panoply of characters that inhabit the world of the circus and the way in which the sights and sounds of the setting springs to life from the page. You can see the acrobats and illusionists, you smell and taste the popcorn and caramel, you will walk through the cloud maze, see the dancing kittens, spend time in the ice garden and possibly even make a wish at the wishing tree. As a reader you find yourself transported and immersed into Morgenstern’s fantastical world – one whose beauty and vibrancy is only enhanced when you resurface from it back into mundane and unmagical reality!

Many people are not fans of magical realism, but I – brought up on a diet of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood – am certainly not one of them. That being said, I can see that The Night Circus, which is very definitely magical realism, and with its meandering narrative and present tense prose might not be to the tastes of everyone. Indeed I, who am certainly not the biggest fan of the present tense in novels, found that – after the opening pages – I was so consumed by the story and the world that it ceased to bother me.

Ultimately, and much like Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus [which not only almost shares the same title, but is also an undoubted influence of Morgenstern], The Night Circus poses questions about the essential connection between fantasy and reality, and the human need for the former in order to deal with the latter. Darkly glittering and endlessly fascinating, with a heart-rending denouement, this was one of the best books that I have read in a very, very long time and one that I would thoroughly recommend.

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