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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…


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


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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Author: Laini Taylor

Title: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Paperback: 418 pages

ISBN: 978-1-4447-2265-9

Price: £7.99

Publication Date: 05/07/2012

Being a teenager is tough. Or at least it is for seventeen-year-old Karou, as she struggles to keep her two lives balanced. On the one hand, she’s a bohemian art student in Prague – one with ultramarine hair and a proclivity for tattoos. On the other, she is the errand girl for the enigmatic Brimstone – a chimaera who brought Karou up and is the closest thing that she has to family – and must trade teeth for wishes across the world for reasons that Brimstone refuses to reveal to her.

Raised part in our world and part in Elsewhere, Karou is plagued by questions. Why does Brimstone need the teeth? And what does he do with them? And how did Karou come into his keeping? And why is she plagued by the feeling that she is not whole?

So when the doors to Elsewhere mysteriously start  to close Karou must choose between her human life and the demon family who brought her up.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a book of rare beauty, and one filled with invention and richly textured landscapes and characters. In it, angels and devils do battle, there’s star-crossed lovers and mystery and humour and pathos and gothically macabre moments. It is a wildly imaginative novel, one that resist cliches and has, at its heart, in the form of Karou, a strong, funny and wilful heroine who keeps the reader caring – but is also vulnerable and, at times, quite a lonely and isolated figure. From the first glitter of her thoughts I found myself drawn to her, and she does dominate the book with her unique brilliance.

Part Pan’s Labyrinth, part Angela Carter, part Hieronymus Bosch painting, and with a dose of Romeo & Juliet to keep the bittersweet romance simmering along, this is the sort of novel that I am naturally drawn to. Gritty and fantastical in equal measures, I have always loved the magical and supernatural, which Daughter of Smoke and Bone delivers in spades. With clever twists and elegant, vivid prose, this novel is a veritable treasure-chest of delights, that elegantly and seamlessly delivers its revelations. Taylor’s prose is exquisite. It is whimsical and delightful, playful and wistful by turn and kept me enthralled from first page to last. I just can’t emphasise enough how beautiful it made this book to read and quite how much it added to the experience.

And it is also, when it needs to be, dark and tragic – especially in terms of the romance between Karou and warrior Seraphim Akiva, which in a lesser novelwould be one of sugarcoated perfection. But this is not a lesser novel. And when conflict does arise between Karou and Akiva, it is not sugarcoated; it is not sanitized. It’s tragic, and it’s real and it breaks your heart.

Indeed, the full extent of this conflict only reveals itself at the very climax of the novel, in a twist that will knock the breath out of you and recast all the book’s previous events in a new light. The most crucial event in the story actually occurs pretty early in the page count, but it’s only later that you learn what actually happened and what it means.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a beautifully written, brilliantly imaginative novel, that is unique and funny and tragic all at the same time. It is a book not just about about love and self-discovery, but also about the tragedy of war, of hope when life is tragic, and the strength to fight for what you believe in. The only problem with the book is that I devoured it and it had to end! A fabulous read that shows that paranormal YA can be dark and adult and brilliant if the author has the imagination for it. And Laini Taylor certainly does.

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Author: Karin Slaughter

Title: Criminal

Publisher: Century

Hardback: 428 pages

ISBN: 978-1-8460-5796-0

Price: £18.99

Publication Date: 05/07/2012

It’s always a risk when an author decides to alter or experiment with a bestselling formula – especially in the crime genre. On the one hand, it can have a positive effect and freshen-up something that has become a little formulaic. Or, it can have the opposite effect, and show quite why a bestselling formula is exactly that.

So Karin Slaughter’s decision to split her new novel, Criminal, into two story arcs – each forty years apart – is certainly a risk, but one that, by-and-large, works incredibly well and once again delivers a compelling and suspenseful crime thriller.

When a woman is found savagely murdered [well, it is a Karin Slaughter novel, so if there wasn’t a savage murder then you would feel short-changed!] in a run-down Atlanta apartment, the circumstances of her death bear a startling similarity to the murder of a woman almost forty years before and forces many of her characters to confront their secret pasts and histories.

Central to it all is Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Will Trent and his supervisor, Amanda Wagner, and over the course of the novel their complex and strange relationship and history is explored in the greatest depth to date in the series and the major revelation at the book’s conclusion was certainly one of the highlights of the novel for me.

For years Slaughter has been dangling tantalising readers with bits and pieces from Will Trent’s past. Trent, dyslexic, and scarred physically and psychologically from years spent growing up in orphanages and on the streets, is one of the most fascinating characters in the contemporary crime fiction firmament. His destructive marriage to fellow orphan Angie Polaski has stopped Will from finding a meaningful relationship in the series, but, in Criminal, he has finally managed to find a semblance of happiness with another major series character, the beautiful and brilliant medical examiner, Sara Linton. But even as their relationship is beginning, it is threatened, both by Angie Polaski’s refusal to ‘lose’ Will and by Will’s own secrets – both his own and his family’s.

It’s difficult – and a task that I am not going to attempt – to try and go into too much depth on the plot and twists of Criminal, certainly without giving away any of the red herrings or twists that make up the novel. But one of the reasons that all of Criminal‘s revelations and twists work so well is because Slaughter is such a master at creating and maintaining a raft of brilliantly realised characters. She has become known – one could probably say infamous – for the brutality and gore of her books. However, in recent novels, it has become apparent that Slaughter’s books are far more than just gorily macabre killers. Yes, the killer’s methods and MO in Criminal is pretty unpleasant, but the novel is actually far more about the interplay of the characters and almost all of the suspense comes from the affects that they – and their actions – have upon one another.

If I had one minor criticism with Criminal it would be that – at least in the early stages of the novel – the balance between the ‘historical’ and contemporary story arcs didn’t completely work for me. I found that far more attention, certainly in the first half of the novel, seemed to be on the historical arc. And, as a fan of Will Trent and Sara Linton, and having waited a year to see their story evolving, I think that a part of me felt slightly grumpy that they were not the main focus of the first half of the book! But, I certainly couldn’t level that charge at the second half of the book, which was brilliantly engrossing and filled with twists and where the interplay between the two story arcs is wonderfully done.

Suspenseful, fast-paced and well-plotted, Criminal continues to develop and evolve Will Trent and Sara Linton as two of the most interesting characters in crime fiction.

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