House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas

House of Earth and Blood Cover

Publisher: Bloomsbury/Audible Studios (Audiobook – 3 March 2020)

Series: Crescent City – Book One

Lenght: 27 hours and 50 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to meet your new obsession! One of the world’s top young adult fantasy fiction authors, Sarah J. Maas, breaks into the adult fantasy fiction genre in a big way with the first book in her brand-new Crescent City series.

Sarah J. Maas is an author that needs very little introduction. She is one of the most highly regarded young adult fantasy authors in the world today, having written two major bestselling series and a couple of standalone young adult novels. Maas debuted in 2012 with Throne of Glass, the first novel in her acclaimed seven-book long Throne of Glass series, and she has since gone on to write a second major series, A Court of Thorns and Roses. I have been meaning to check out some of Maas’s main series for a while now, especially Throne of Glass, as I have heard some very good things about them. Unfortunately, the only book of Maas’s that I have so far read was her DC Comics tie-in novel, Catwoman: Soulstealer, which I really enjoyed, especially as Maas had an amazing understanding of some iconic comic characters. As a result, I was interested when I heard about her new book, House of Earth and Blood, and I was curious to see how her first adult fiction novel would turn out. This is the first book in the Crescent City series, which presumably will be the author’s main body of work for the next few years. I received a physical copy of this book to review, although I eventually decided to listen to the audiobook format to fit it into my reading schedule, and I have to say I was rather impressed.

Welcome to Crescent City, a bustling metropolis where magic and technology meet in a world ruled over by all-powerful godlike creatures. Bryce Quinlan is a half-Fae, half-human, party girl at the low end of her world’s magical hierarchy, content to live her days clubbing and celebrating with her best friend, the powerful werewolf Alpha Danika Fendyr. All that changes the night Danika and her entire wolf pack are brutally slaughtered while Bryce is out partying. Bryce arrives home just in time to encounter the demon that committed the act, chasing it out into the streets before it escapes, never to be seen again.

Two years later, Bryce is a shell of her former self. Still reeling from the death of the closest person in her life, Bryce finds herself without direction or purpose. However, the revelation that a fresh wave of killings that mirror the bloody way Danika and her pack were taken out quickly changes that. Due to her experiences with the unknown species of demon and her intimate knowledge of Danika’s movements and history, Bryce is tasked by the governor of Crescent City to find who or what is summoning the destructive demons and unleashing them upon seemingly random members of the populace. However, Bryce will not be working on this case alone, as she finds herself teamed up with the governor’s personal assassin, the brooding, dangerous and surprisingly attractive fallen angel, Hunt Athalar.

Begrudgingly agreeing to work together, Bryce and Hunt start to scour the dark underbelly of their city, attempting to find any leads to who summoned the demon. However, they soon run afoul of many of Crescent City’s inhabitants, some of whom do not want the pair to uncover the truth. As they dig further, they begin to uncover a terrible conspiracy with terrible connections to Bryce’s traumatic past and which threatens all of Crescent City. However, the closer they come to the truth, the more pain and torment the two damaged souls uncover, especially as both of them try to fight the intense feelings blooming between them. With the fate of Crescent City hanging in the balance, can Bryce and Hunt get to the bottom of these killings, or will they be overwhelmed by all the hurt that is about to come their way?

Well damn, that turned out to be one hell of a book. I do have to admit that I’m not usually a fan of major romantic subplots in the novels I read (I know, typical male, Bryce would probably be calling me an Alphahole), and I was a little apprehensive that the romantic angles described in the book’s synopsis would overwhelm the fantasy story. However, any doubts I had about whether I was going to enjoy House of Earth and Blood were quickly blown away in the early stages of the story, especially once I hit the major plot development about 70 pages in. From there I was absolutely hooked on the story, as Maas kept piling on revelations, shocking moments, character development and an impressive murder mystery. I ended up really loving this amazing novel, and I ended up giving it a five-star rating.

I really enjoyed the way that Maas told this story, and this book contained an expansive and deeply addictive narrative that proved hard to put down at times. House of Earth and Blood is told from several character perspectives, most notably Bryce and Hunt, although quite a bit of the story is shown from the perspective of Bryce’s half-brother, Ruhn Danaan. Having these three main point-of-view characters results in a much more expansive story, as each of them has their own contributions to the plot, although there is a huge amount of crossover between each of their storylines. While Mass tends to focus most of her character development and storylines around Bryce, Hunt and Ruhn, there are a number of additional supporting characters, some of whom have some rather interesting roles throughout the book. Maas also includes a huge amount of foreshadowing throughout the book, hinting at several things that are to come further along in the narrative. While it is obvious where some of this foreshadowing is going, some of it was only noticeable in hindsight, and some of these more subtle inclusions made me really appreciate the author’s clever writing style.

One of the best things about this book was the incredible and intriguing new fantasy world. The Crescent City series is set on a version of Earth called Midgard, which was invaded thousands of years ago by vast armies of various magical creatures, ending humankind’s dominance of the planet. The modern world of Midgard is a chaotic and fascinating place, filled will all manner of magic and creatures who live in a hierarchal system, with all-powerful beings at the top and humans at the very bottom. There are so many cool elements to this world, from the unique magical systems, the different factions and organisations, and a vast multitude of different magical creatures with their own traits and characteristics. Maas dedicates a substantial amount of time exploring all these different elements of her new world, and the result is an impressive and vast setting which serves as a fantastic backdrop to this exciting story. I also liked the rather fun similarities between this fantasy world and the modern world, and it was interesting to see fantasy creatures running around with modern technology such as phones and guns. I also had a rather good laugh at some of the television shows that the author featured in the book, including a rather trashy-sounding True Blood inspired television show, which was made fun of relentlessly for its sexual content (which is kind of ironic considering how much sex was in this novel). Maas is clearly a master of universe building, and she has come up with a really great fantasy world that holds a lot of potential for future novels in the series, as well as opening up the possibilities of spin-off stories around some of the fantastic side characters introduced. I personally would love to see a novel based around the character of Fury Axtar, the mysterious assassin friend of Bryce, who has a minor role in the book.

In addition, Maas has also come up with a rather clever murder mystery storyline that I had an outstanding time unwrapping. The vast majority of House of Earth and Blood’s plot revolves around the murder of Danika Fendyr and her pack, as well as the similar murders that are occurring in the modern day. The subsequent investigation by Bryce and Hunt turned into a rather captivating storyline, as they explored the underbelly of their fascinating city, trying to find leads and uncover who had a motive to kill Danika. This whole mystery storyline goes to some very interesting places, and Maas comes up with a number of red herrings, alternate suspects, potential leads and side mysteries (a missing magical horn and a new street drug), all of which come together into a pretty incredible and clever narrative. I was actually rather surprised about who the culprit turned out to be, although Maas does set up the reveal rather well, and there are some rather clever hints in hindsight. That being said, while I didn’t know who the culprit was in advance, I totally knew where the final showdown with them was going to take place, and how the whole confrontation was bound to go down (there was a literal Chekov’s gun there). Still, it turned into quite a good confrontation scene, and I had a good laugh at the over-the-top way that the villain was taken down for good. This was a rather impressive element of the story, and I hope that Maas includes some more clever mysteries in her future books.

While I really loved the fantastic story, incredible world building and captivating mystery, the true centre of this book are the two compelling and exceedingly damaged main characters who Maas sets the story around, Bryce Quinlan and Hunt Athalar. Maas does some outstanding work setting these characters up, exploring their pasts and developing their personalities and emotions throughout the book. Bryce starts House of Earth and Blood as a seemingly carefree party girl with major daddy issues. However, the loss of Danika in the book’s first act severely changes her, as she has to deal with an extreme amount of guilt, isolation and social hatred in the following two years. This really alters her as a character and turns her into an extremely vulnerable person with a real emotional investment in the case, who hides all her true feelings behind a sassy and angry façade. Hunt, on the other hand, is a powerful fallen angel who lost his freedom and the love of his life in a failed rebellion against the ruling gods of the planet, and has spent the last several decades being tortured and used by the victorious archangels, and is now the personal assassin of the governor of Crescent City. Now known throughout the city as the Umbra Mortis, the Shadow of Death, Hunt is a simmering pot of anger who is resentful of how he has been treated all his life, and who is determined to be set free. Like Bryce, he is deeply invested in solving the case, as its resolution will allow him to take a serious step towards freedom, and on the surface he is the more serious of the duo. However, also like Bryce, Hunt has some major vulnerabilities and he is hurting deep inside. Both Bryce and Hunt are incredibly interesting protagonists, and I am really impressed with the layers that Maas was able bring to their characters, which added a significant amount to the story.

While Bryce and Hunt are amazing characters in their own right, the real magic comes when they are paired together. It is obvious from the start that these two are going to hook up at some point, but the journey to get there was written extremely well. The combination of these two exceedingly vulnerable and complex characters in the story is great, and it makes for some incredible and dramatic story moments, as Bryce and Hunt slowly work out all their issues and history. The way they slowly go from dislike to mutual respect to lust/romance is accompanied with a slow exchange of secrets, facts and personality reveals, and I had an amazing time seeing them come together as a couple. This turned into quite a good romantic subplot, although the two of them have some major bumps and betrayals along the way. Still, there are some rather nice moments in their relationship, from the way that they take care of each other after traumatic events, to funny reveals and mutual moments of protecting one and other. Bryce and Hunt make for a great pair, and I am really impressed with the way that Maas portrayed them and the complex story she wove around them. It looks like there are more secrets and backgrounds about both coming up in the future books, and I am looking forward to seeing where Maas takes them in the future.

While this book had some amazing elements, I did find this novel to be a tad trashy at times. As I mentioned above, this is Maas’s first foray into non-young adult fiction, and she certainly did not shy away from adding all manner of adult content into her book. While I can certainly appreciate Maas wanting to differentiate this book from some of her young-adult fiction work, I honestly think she overcompensated. This book is filled with a huge amount of adult language and sexual content, as pretty much every character in this book is crude, rude, oversexed and incredibly thirsty. While some of this served a purpose, such as showing what sort of party-girl character Bryce was before the traumatic incident, the sheer amount of stuff that Maas included was a bit over the top, and I found it to be somewhat distracting at times. This book also introduced me to the brand-new term, Alphahole. In the context of this book, an Alphahole is the term that Bryce gives to any magical male who thinks that their abilities and power give them the right to control women and run their lives, especially those women with less magical power than them (i.e. humans and half-humans like Bryce). Unfortunately, in this book pretty much every male that Bryce encounters is an Alphahole in her opinion; even the more redeemable characters like Hunt or Ruhn are deemed Alphaholes at the start of the novel, especially once they venture an opinion about her behaviour or actions. While I appreciate that this dislike for domineering men is part of Bryce’s character due to her father, and controlling guys really aren’t that cool in either fiction or real life, I do think that Maas kind of overdid their inclusion just a bit and I was honestly getting sick of hearing Alphahole as a descriptive term by the end of the book (although it became less apparent as the story progressed).

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of House of Earth and Blood. This audiobook has a runtime of 27 hours and 50 minutes and is narrated by Elizabeth Evans. I am rather glad that I decided to check out this format of the book. While I probably would have finished it off faster if I had read a physical copy (it took me a few weeks to get through the audiobook), I always feel that I absorb more of the novel when I listen to it, especially with longer books. This proved to be really useful when listening to House of Earth and Blood, as Maas packed so much plot and world building into this immense novel, and I think I ended up getting more out of this book by utilising this format. I have to say that I was also immensely impressed with Elizabeth Evans’s narration. Evans did an incredible job bringing the story to life, and her steady and emotional dictation of the story really helped me get to the end. I really loved the cool voices that Evans was able to come up with for all the characters, and I think that each of them matched the distinctive personalities of each character. Evans produced a huge range of different voices for these characters, and I really liked how she was able to alter them to reflect the ethereal or magical nature of some of the characters featured in the book, as well as hint at how powerful some of these creatures were by modulating her tone and adding a commanding quality to it. This was an impressive and deeply enjoyable audiobook adaptation, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in enjoying House of Earth and Blood. That being said, be careful where you listen to this book, as it can be a little awkward to hear some of the steamy sex scenes when you are out in public. I somehow managed to be out shopping during two separate and particularly graphic scenes, and it proved very hard to keep a straight face while I was trying to grab groceries.

House of Earth and Blood is an incredible adult fiction debut from Sarah J. Maas, who has produced another outstanding and captivating read. There are so many excellent and enjoyable story elements in this book, and I absolutely loved every second I spend listening to it, even though some parts were a little over the top at times. This was an awesome start to Maas’s new Crescent City series, and I cannot wait to see what impressive and addictive story the author comes up with next. This novel comes highly recommended, and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

Dark Blade by Steve Feasey

Dark Blade Cover

Publisher: Bloomsbury (Trade Paperback – 11 July 2019)

Series: Whispers of the Gods – Book 1

Length: 352 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

For those readers looking for a cool new young adult fantasy series to check out, look no further than Dark Blade, the first book in Steve Feasey’s Whispers of the Gods series.

The gods have abandoned the land, monsters are starting to return, war is afoot and in the darkness of the Void, an ancient evil begins to stir, eager to return to the mortal world.

Into all this, a young boy, Lann, is born. Left as a foundling and with no knowledge of his past, Lann lives a normal life as a farmer’s son until destiny suddenly finds him on the eve of his 14th birthday. Barely surviving an attack from a vicious monster, Lann is left blinded and is taken in by Fleya, a powerful witch with knowledge of his past. While Lann learns to cope with his blindness, dangerous events are unfolding in the land.

In Stromgard, a young and bitter member of the royal family, Kelewulf, has utilised dangerous magic to bind a powerful lich to his body. Together, the young sorcerer and his new undead shadow plan to open a gateway to the void and release a powerful dark god imprisoned there. After murdering the king and framing his son for his death, Kelewulf begins to implement his evil plans unopposed, while the king’s young daughter, Astrid, is forced to take the throne in an attempt to save her brother’s life,

The only hope for the world may be Lann, who awakens one night to find one of the ancient gods in his room. In exchange for the return of his sight, all Lann has to do is take up the Dreadblade, a powerful and ancient blade with a dark history. As the Dreadblade’s wielder, Lann becomes a deadly warrior compelled to hunt down the monsters that roam the land. However, the Dreadblade is a sentient item with its own destructive objectives. Can Lann learn to wield the sword before it is too late, or will an ancient evil once again be let loose?

This is a fantastic new book from established young adult author Steve Feasey. Feasey has been writing for around 10 years, creating two intriguing young adult series. These include the Changeling series, which follows the adventures of a young teen werewolf, and the Mutant City books, which focus on a group of super-powered mutants in a dystopian future. His latest book, Dark Blade, is the first novel in his Whispers of the Gods series, which focuses on a new young protagonist in an original fantasy world.

This was a really fun and enjoyable young adult fantasy book that does a wonderful job setting up a new series with some real potential. Feasey has come up with some really interesting ideas for his fantasy world, populating a Norse-inspired landscape with deadly creatures, fading gods, powerful magic and intense adventures. This book is incredibly fast paced, jumping from intriguing scene to intriguing scene exceedingly fast while maintaining the overall integrity of the story. The story goes in some interesting directions, and Feasey does a good job introducing several enjoyable major characters, including a ruthless villain and a great female protagonist in Astrid. On top of that, there are some amazing action sequences, especially surrounding the main character as he and his magic sword face off against a variety of monsters.

While the overall story is filled with some interesting twists and some creative story developments, the Dark Blade does utilise a number of classical or general adventure tropes. The story of a young orphaned hero who discovers that he has a secret destiny and is gifted a weapon of immense powers (SPOILERS: which used to belong to his father) and who finds a wise mentor to guide him in the first book are all pretty familiar story ideas. However, Feasey uses them to great effect and they help enhance his overall story and help make his book feel more like a young adult version of an old school epic fantasy. The author also makes some amazing changes to the classic storylines, such as granting the sword a malevolent and dominating sentience that attempts to manipulate the protagonist into destroying evil, no matter the cost. Lann’s struggles to control to the sword and stop its attempts to influence him make for some intriguing scenes, and I loved one sequence that sees the Dreadblade go to some extreme lengths to achieve its goals.

Dark Blade is a really fun read that is mostly aimed towards a younger audience. Containing a number of intense battle sequences and scenes of magical devastation, this novel is probably best suited to younger teen or pre-teen readers, who will love the fun adventure contained within this book. This first entry in the Whispers of the Gods series would actually serve as an excellent introduction to the fantasy genre for young readers, who will really enjoy the great combination of action, clever story and interesting fantasy elements.

Overall, this is a compelling and exciting novel that does a wonderful job setting up an intriguing series. Dark Blade has a number of great elements, including an enjoyable, fast-paced story and some inventive modernisation of classic fantasy features, all of which make for a cool read that younger readers in particular will find enjoyable. The Whispers of the Gods series is off to a fine start, and I look forward to seeing how Feasey expands his story in the future.

We are Blood and Thunder by Kesia Lupo

We are Blood and Thunder Cover

Publisher: Bloomsbury YA (Trade Paperback – 4 April 2019)

Series: Standalone / Book 1

Length: 400 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From first-time author Kesia Lupo comes We are Blood and Thunder, a clever, inventive and at times dark young adult fantasy novel that represents a brilliant start to a bold new fantasy world.

In the nation of Valorian, a powerful magical curse has been laid upon the city of Duke’s Forest. The curse has wrapped the entire city in a mystical storm cloud filled with death, sickness and despair. Following a series of virulent pestilences brought on by the storm cloud, the city has been placed in quarantine, although passage in or out of the cloud is already extremely difficult. Now, six years after the curse first struck Duke’s Forest, the fate of the city and all who live within will lie upon the shoulders of two young women.

Lena is a cryptling, one of the deformed or marked offspring of Duke’s Forest’s inhabitants who live in the sprawling crypts underneath the city and watch over the Ancestors, the interred dead of the city, who are worshiped as gods. Lena, whose birthmark saw her abandoned as a baby, led a quiet life below the city until strange things started happening all around her. Accused of being a mage by the magic-hating Lord Justice, Lena just barely escapes execution when she encounters Constance in the mists outside the city. Constance is the daughter of Duke’s Forest’s ruler, the Duke, and has returned to the city to reclaim what is hers. Trained as a mage, Constance recognises the magic within Lena and sends her outside the mist while she continues back to Duke’s Forest. However, this fateful meeting will have huge consequences on the lives of both women.

Once outside the mists, Lena encounters the huntsman Emris, a magic user trained to locate untrained mages like Lena, known as Rogues, who has been pursuing Constance for magical crimes she has been accused of. Emris brings Lena back to the City of Kings, the capital of Valorian, where she attempts to learn how to control her magic. However, her unusual magical abilities and status as a Rogue bring her to the attention of some of the city’s worst inhabitants. Back in Duke’s Forest, Constance finds that her city and her father have fallen under the control of the tyrannical Lord Justice. Keeping her status as a mage hidden, Constance attempts to regain control of Duke’s Forest while also searching for the source of the curse surrounding the city. As both Lena and Constance attempt to survive in their respective cities, fate keeps bringing their destinies together. The future of Duke’s Forest rests in the hands of these young women. Can they save the city, or will they be the storm that destroys it?

We are Blood and Thunder is a clever and extremely captivating young adult fantasy novel that I read a little while ago but only just got a chance to review. I wish I had gotten a review of this book up a little earlier as it is a fantastic first book and I have been quite keen to sing the author’s praises for a while. We are Blood and Thunder is the debut novel of exciting new talent Kesia Lupo and presents a powerful story filled with magic, betrayal, personal growth and the hunt for power. At the moment, We are Blood and Thunder is a standalone novel, but the author has indicated on Goodreads that she may set future books within the same universe.

The story of We are Blood and Thunder is told from the perspectives of Lupo’s two main characters, Lena and Constance. Each character narrates about half the book and tells their separate narratives through alternating chapters. This allows Lupo to tell two separate stories that are not only very different in content but which help show a far wider area of the new fantasy world that Lupo has created. I found both of the storylines contained within this book to be extremely fascinating. The first storyline, which is narrated by Lena, follows the character as she journeys to the City of Kings to learn more about magic. While there, she learns more about her mysterious powers and finds herself embroiled in the conflict between the Temples that control magic and an influential mage outside the control of the Temples who has the ear of the King. The second storyline, which is narrated by Constance, is a darker story of political intrigue, murder and dark magic within the walls of Duke’s Forest, as Constance attempts to find the heart of the storm cloud before it is too late, while also attempting to neutralise the tyrannical Lord Justice.

While the magical learning, emotional growth and world building featured within Lena’s storyline are really good, I did prefer the Constance storyline a little more. All the dark political manoeuvring within the unique setting of the cursed Duke’s Forest and the battle between Constance and the Lord Justice were pretty darn compelling, and I had a very hard time putting down the book while I was reading the Constance chapters. While both of these storylines are really good, I was quite impressed by the way that Lupo was able to combine the two separate stories together into one amazing overarching narrative. I felt that the two storylines really complemented each other and helped make each respective storyline better. For example, the explanations of this fantasy universe’s magic in Lena’s chapters help the reader understand some of the magical elements occurring in Constance’s chapters. At the same time, many of the preparations and relationships Constance forged for her desperate return to Duke’s Forest impact Lena as she uncovers dark secrets within the City of Kings. There are also a number of excellent plot twists cleverly hidden throughout the book that are slowly revealed in both storylines. I thought some of these twists, especially a big reveal towards the end of the book, were just amazing and helped turn this into an epic and electrifying story. I felt that the author’s use of the two separate storylines was an incredible way to tell the story, and the overall narrative was quite outstanding.

In addition to her excellent twin storylines, Lupo also came up with two awesome fantasy cities: the City of Kings and Duke’s Forest. The City of Kings is your classic fantasy capital with massive temples and palaces, where everything appears to be perfect and harmonious on the surface. However, there are some dark secrets at the heart of this city, and the magical politics prove to be a major threat to one of the book’s main characters. While this is a great setting, I have to say that the city of Duke’s Forest is the far more impressive setting. Even before the city was cursed, Duke’s Forest would have been an amazing fantasy setting, with its massive crypts staffed by abandoned children and its rabid intolerance of magic. However, by turning it into a city on the brink of death, surrounded by dangerous magical mists and clouds, Duke’s Forest transformed into a much more intriguing and memorable fantasy setting. Lupo does an amazing job bringing this inventive location to life, and I was impressed by the sense of despair and hopelessness that seemed to hang in the air in each chapter set in this city. These two city settings were great, and I felt that they both enhanced the book’s narratives. Duke’s Forest in particular added a sense of urgency to Constance’s hunt for the heart of the storm cloud. I am very curious to see what other locations Lupo will create for the nation of Valorian in the future, and I look forward to exploring more of this clever fantasy world.

I also quite enjoyed the interesting magical elements that the author utilised in We are Blood and Thunder. Lupo has invented some great magical lore in this book, and I had a lot of fun exploring the various aspects of it. Not only is there a city-wide magical curse but there is also a whole new system of magic for the reader to enjoy. I quite liked the intriguing magical systems that Lupo came up with, and there are a number of great elements to them. These include the vision-filled practice of mages binding their magic to a god in order to control their power, which then influences their magical power and abilities, as well as mages who don’t bind their powers and then subsequently lose control and become a Radical, a destructive being controlled by the underlying darkness in magic. These magical elements are mostly explored by Lena. As a member of an ostracised minority who lived beneath a quarantined city where all knowledge of magic was punished, Lena is a perfect character to explore Lupo’s magical elements. Lena has the same lack of knowledge of this world’s mage as the reader, so the readers get a baseline explanation of magic that also makes sense to the plot. I quite enjoyed the various magical elements that the author came up with in this book, and I am sure that she will further expand upon them in later books in this universe.

We are Blood and Thunder is an outstanding debut from Kesia Lupo which combines some amazing and complex character-based storylines with inventive fantasy settings and cool magical fantasy elements to create an awesome overall book. Lupo has some considerable skill when it comes to a compelling young adult fantasy book, and We are Blood and Thunder is an excellent first outing for this talented author. I look forward to reading more of Lupo’s work in the future, especially if she returns to the excellent world she created in We are Blood and Thunder.

Guest Review: Pan’s Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun by Guillermo del Toro and Cornelia Funke

For this entry, my editor and future wife Alex managed to talk me into letting her do a review.  We hope you enjoy this guest review, and Alex may do some more in the future.

Pan's Labyrinth Cover

Publisher: Bloomsbury (Trade Paperback – 2 July 2019)

Series: Pan’s Labyrinth

Length: 297 pages

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

As the chief editor for The Unseen Library, I read far more book reviews than books, but every now and then the mood strikes just right, and I am fortunate to share a house filled to the brim with books waiting to be enjoyed. I thought I’d commemorate the latest occasion by writing a review of my own:

Pan’s Labyrinth is a Spanish-language dark fantasy film written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Thirteen years after its release, Guillermo del Toro and bestselling author Cornelia Funke have transformed the screenplay of the film into a beautiful work of prose.

Pan’s Labyrinth is part of a modern tradition of fairytales in which children have fantastic adventures whilst the adults are busy with war. In Spain, in 1944, young Ofelia and her mother join the household of Capitan Vidal, who is responsible for hunting down the anti-fascist guerrillas hiding in the mountainous forests nearby. Left to her own devices and enchanted by fairy tales, Ofelia is drawn to the ancient stone labyrinth near their new home. There she meets the Faun, who tells her she is in fact the missing princess of the Underground Kingdom. In order to reclaim her place in the kingdom and escape her terrible new stepfather, she must prove her courage and worthiness by completing three tasks. This is easier said than done; these tasks themselves are life-threateningly perilous, but Ofelia must also try to protect herself and her heavily pregnant and ailing mother from the ruthless Capitan and the rebels at the door.

Guillermo del Toro is renowned for making visually stunning films, and Pan’s Labyrinth was no exception; in fact, it won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Makeup. I am happy to report that the novelisation of Pan’s Labyrinth faithfully re-imagines the amazing sets, characters and creatures of the film. In the absence of cinematography, visual design and Doug Jones in monster makeup, the authors have relied on using a great deal of descriptive language to bring scenes to life in text. This is also supported by a number of illustrations throughout the book which clearly drew from the art of the film. It had been many years since I last saw the film, but the imagery of the story is so well produced that I was easily able to imagine many long-forgotten scenes according to del Toro’s vision.

There are many advantages of this novelisation. In particular, the book gives a great deal of insight into various characters not afforded by the film. We see Ofelia’s thought processes as she observes the adults around her and as she obeys or defies the Faun’s instructions. We understand the fierce motivation of Mercedes and Dr Ferreira as they desperately try to assist the rebels in the hills without being discovered. Most terrifying of all, we catch a glimpse of the inner mind of Capitan Vidal, the Wolf, whose horrendous acts of violence rival those of the Pale Man. The inner monologues of these characters provided in the book enable us to have a greater appreciation of their perspectives, actions and motivations.

For the most part, the novelisation follows the story of the film faithfully, but it also includes a number of additional chapters. These feature stories of the Underground Kingdom and its magic bleeding into the Upper Kingdom, creating the lore and mythology that surrounds the Spanish landscape in which the story is set. These grim and interconnected fairy tales provide amazing context for the enigmatic Faun and the nature and gravity of the tasks Ofelia must complete, as well as being beautiful and moving stories in their own right.

Fans of the film will know exactly what to expect from the novelisation of Pan’s Labyrinth and will appreciate the additional fairy tales and insights it provides. Those who haven’t seen the film (and there is always a cohort of cinemagoers that dislikes or struggles with subtitled films) will feel as though they had, as this gruesome and fantastic story has been beautifully transferred onto the page.

Quick Review – OtherEarth by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller

OtherEarth Cover.jpg

Publisher: Rock the Boat

Publication Date – 30 October 2018

 

From the superstar team of comedian Jason Segel and young adult author Kirsten Miller comes the second book in their Last Reality series, OtherEarth.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Simon saved his best friend, Kat, from the clutches of the Company and their high-tech VR gaming experience, Otherworld. But it was at a steep price. Now he, Kat, and their friend Busara are on the run. They know too much. About the Company’s dark secrets. About the real-life consequences of playing Otherworld. And about Kat’s stepfather’s involvement in everything. The group is headed to New Mexico to find Simon’s old roommate, who is a tech genius and possibly the only person who can help them reveal the truth about the Company before it’s too late and the line between what’s real and what’s fantasy is erased… forever.

Imagine a future in which you can leave reality behind and give in to your greatest desires. That future is now. And the future is terrifying.

Segel and Miller are an interesting team with some history, having previously written the Nightmares series together.  While Segel is best known for his film, television and comedy work, Miller is an established young adult author, having written two additional series.

I read the first book in this series, Otherworld, late last year, and it was one of the first young adult books I actually reviewed, as I had not professionally looked at this genre much before.  After reading and enjoying the first book a lot, I started checking out more young adult books in the last year, resulting in some really fun finds and some truly excellent reads.  As a result, I was very excited to check out the follow-up to this book and I was curious to see if I would enjoy OtherEarth the same way I enjoyed Otherworld.  I have to say that overall I had a lot of fun with this second book in the Last Reality series, and it had a lot of great and memorable elements to it.

OtherEarth follows on straight after the events of Otherworld, with the protagonists on the run from the Company.  During their previous adventure, the protagonists were able to determine that the Company had been experimenting on coma victims, installing them into their high-tech video game Otherworld, and killing anyone who learns about their secrets.  Simon, Kat, Busara and newcomer Elvis are now determined to expose the sinister actions of the Company while also saving the sentient programs that have come to life within the game.

One of the interesting things I liked about OtherEarth was the way that the authors split the story between the characters going on adventures within the Otherworld game and their attempts to evade and manipulate the company in the real world.  In order to solve their real-world problems, the protagonists are forced to venture into Otherworld in order to locate the consciences of people the Company have trapped within the game in order to obtain the information or resources to shut the Company down for good.  The blend between these in-game adventures and the subsequent real-world actions they take while evading and attacking the Company works really well and helps create an intriguing story.  Both parts of these stories have some great moments, and there are some fantastic twists throughout the book that will keep the reader keen to check out the final book in this series.

The focus on video games continues to be a major part of this book, and the authors offer up a bit of a critique of the future of this medium.  In OtherEarth, every player of Otherworld is a certifiable psychopath, as the world’s richest gamers buy up the extremely exclusive access to the game.  Watching the various players use the game to fulfil their violent desires and use the game to act as gods is quite eye opening, as is the protagonist’s growing addiction to the game and the combat mechanisms within it.  The programs within Otherworld who have gained sentience also offer a unique edge to the story and it is fascinating to watch them react against the players and creators they encounter.

There is a certain amount of humour and comedy throughout the book, although it is not as strictly comedic as other works by Jason Segel.  However, there are some pretty fun and amusing sequences throughout the novel.  The one that springs to mind the easiest is one particularly entertaining high-stakes sequence that suddenly devolves into a weird and comedic discussion about Dame Judi Dench in some very unusual contexts.  The combination of OtherEarth’s humour and the mostly serious nature of the story gives the book an unique flavour which comes together in a very enjoyable way.

From a young adult perspective, this book is probably best intended for an older teen audience as it contains some adult content.  While not as bad as the first book in the series, which contained a pretty inappropriate early scene in which the protagonist blackmails a couple of bitchy high school girls with their nudes, the intense action and some sexual content is probably not ideal for younger readers.  However, this book will be perfect for the older teen market, and most adult readers will have a good time reading this book.

Overall, OtherEarth is an excellent follow-up to Segel and Miller’s Otherworld, and continues their fun techno-thriller adventure.  With some great humour, an intriguing story and some interesting examinations of the gaming medium, OtherEarth is another exciting read for the older young adult audience.  This is a brilliant read that is well worth checking out.  I will personally am looking forward to the third book in the Last Reality series, OtherLife, which is coming out in October 2019.

My Rating:

Four stars

A Shot in the Dark by Lynne Truss

A Shot in the Dark Cover.jpg

Publisher: Raven Books

Publication Date – 28 June 2018

 

From Lynne Truss, one of England’s most creative minds, comes A Shot in the Dark, a hilarious take on the historical murder mystery that sets three fantastic and exaggerated police characters against a sinister and surprising criminal mastermind.

Brighton, 1957.  Following a terrible massacre that saw the death of every member of two rival gangs some years before, the city of Brighton is now clear of all crime.  At least, that’s what Inspector Steine believes, and, as he is the famous and inspirational police detective whose actions allowed the eradication of these vicious gangs, that’s what the rest of the Brighton Constabulary believe as well.  Unfortunately for everyone, Inspector Steine is nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is.  Despite all the evidence, he simply refuses to believe the theory of his long suffering ‘bagman’ Sergeant Brunswick that a mysterious third crime boss organised the massacre and is currently running crime in Brighton.

So when the young, keen and exceedingly annoying Constable Twitten arrives in Brighton and starts investigating a series of burglaries, Steine is particularly aggrieved.  Despite Steine’s insistence that Brighton’s criminal element is no more, Twitten seems determined to find criminal activity – and he does.  The opening night of a new controversial play is unfortunately ruined when the opinionated and unpleasant film critic that Twitten is sitting next to is shot in the head.  Finally a crime that even Steine can’t ignore.

Who could have wanted the critic dead?  Is his death due to the multiple plays and productions that his reviews have destroyed?  Or is it perhaps related to a bank robbery that the critic witnessed many years ago, and that Steine failed to solve.  As Twitten and Brunswick start their investigation and Steine provides his own special brand of ‘help’, a second body is found.  As the case continues, Brighton’s newest constable is about to uncover a dark secret about his city and the sinister figure manipulating everything behind the scenes.

Truss is a highly talented writer, author and radio personality who has produced a huge range of different works, including the non-fiction book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.  Truss has also created several other fictional and non-fictional books, as well as a number of popular radio series.  A Shot in the Dark is Truss’s fifth fiction novel and is the first book in her Constable Twitten Mystery series.

One of the most interesting features of A Shot in the Dark is that it is actually a novelisation of Truss’s popular radio comedy drama series, Inspector Steine, which ran between 2007 and 2013 and starred the inimitable Michael Fenton-Stevens.  This is a great introduction to the franchise that will have a massive amount of appeal both to fans of the radio show and people who are unfamiliar with this great comedy series.  Rather than being a simple write-up of one of the Inspector Steine episodes, A Shot in the Dark is a combination of several different episodes, containing plot elements from various seasons of the show’s run.  In particular, it contains components borrowed from the series one episodes While the Sun Shines, Separate Tales and The Deep Blue Sea, the series two episode The Entertainer, and the series three episode While the Sun Shines.  As a result of this combination, people unfamiliar with this series get to experience several of the radio show’s best stories and plot points in their first outing.  On the other hand, fans of the radio series get a completely new adventure that re-imagines Constable Twitten’s early days at Brighton.  Storylines listeners may be familiar with have been altered in some new and substantial ways to create a fun and excellent combination of some key stories in the series.

In the original Inspector Steine series, Truss created some amazing characters who are not only terrific by themselves but who played off each other extremely well.  The author has done an amazing job transplanting these characters into a completely different format.  The three main characters are Inspector Steine, Constable Twitten and Sergeant Brunswick.  Inspector Steine is your classic self-important senior management figure who thinks they are so much smarter than they actually are.  Steine is extremely self-absorbed and very easily manipulated, but ultimately well meaning, given he is completely convinced that all the crime in Brighton was erased years ago as a result of his brilliant actions.  Twitten, on the other hand, is actually as smart as he thinks and has no trouble letting everyone he meets know it.  His clever investigative work is capable of solving the crime, but his cleverdick attitude ensures that no-one, especially Inspector Steine, will actually listen to him.  Sergeant Brunswick plays straight man to both of his colleagues, and seems to be the middle ground between these two extreme personalities.  However, while he is a competent investigator, he is also easily manipulated, and fails to see that his brilliant plans to go undercover on every case are hampered by the fact that all of Brighton’s criminals already know who his is.  These three are all extreme examples of some of the classic police characters.  In a normal piece of crime fiction, these three characters work well together (think Endeavour for example), but in A Shot in the Dark they bring out the worst in each other and combine together for great comedic value.

While the three police characters are excellently used and a whole lot of fun by themselves, special mention needs to be given to the brilliant antagonist of this story.  Whiles fans of the radio series will not be surprised about their identity, I will try to avoid revealing too much in order not to ruin the surprise for any new readers.  That being said, this character is an excellent villain who is able to manipulate the three police characters in some suitably comedic ways.  The various and often quite unsubtle ways in which this villain manoeuvres the protagonists in A Shot in the Dark is absolutely hilarious, especially when their ridiculous plots actually work.  New readers will have a fantastic time finding out who this character is and how they’ve gotten away with their crimes, while fans of the radio series will love seeing this outstanding antagonist in all their criminal glory once again.

A Shot in the Dark contains a fantastic story that expertly combines a clever murder mystery with hilarious comedy elements.  As mentioned above, due to main characters’ various shortcomings and the devious nature of the villain, this is not your standard criminal investigation.  The protagonists have to deal with some absurd situations as well as various unusual plans to stop them solving the case.  That being said, the police do perform an investigation and the truth of the various crimes are eventually uncovered, although again without the standard solution crime fiction readers would be used to.  The crime elements are compelling and there is a really interesting mystery contained within this book, with some imaginative twists leading up to the conclusion.  In addition, the two murders are connected together in some clever ways, and the overarching conspiracy about Brighton is particularly intriguing.  While the book contains some gripping mystery elements, it is a comedy at heart; there are some really amazing comedy elements, including some great sequences that really cracked me up.  In addition to the shenanigans of the main characters, there are a range of other eccentric characters throughout the book that provide some fun moments of comic relief with their antics.  These elements come together perfectly, and it is incredibly fun watching all attempts at a serious investigation get disrupted in various silly ways.

Truss set the Inspector Steine series within Brighton in the early 1950s.  While this would already be an interesting setting, the author has amped this up by using elements from the classic crime novel and movie, Brighton Rock.  Truss has stated that her series is based on captions at the start of the 1948 movie which declared that Brighton went from a crime hub between the two World Wars to an area completely free of criminals and corruption by the 1950s.  While many people would be somewhat suspicious of such a statement, the Inspector Steine series is based on the idea that a member of the police actually believed this and acted accordingly.  As a result, the whole city has, on the surface, a wholesome family atmosphere.  That makes the crime hiding underneath a lot more fun to see, especially as the criminals really don’t need to do too much to disguise their activities, secure in Steine’s blissful ignorance.  In addition, fans of the crime classic may be interested to know that there are a number of elements from Brighton Rock that play a key part in the story.  As both the book and the movie exist within the Inspector Steine universe, Inspector Steine actually blames the events of this book on Graham Greene, the original author of Brighton Rock (a sentiment shared by Truss).  In addition, various characters within A Shot in the Dark are obsessed with the events of the classic crime book, and many locations from the Brighton Rock book and movie become major plot settings in the story.  In particular, there are several sequences based around one certain murder from the movie that results in some very entertaining scenes.  Overall, this is a great setting for this excellent comedy-mystery hybrid, which also has some fantastic tie-ins to a classic post-war crime novel.

Lynne Truss delivers an extremely fun and very entertaining adaption of her popular Inspector Steine radio series with A Shot in the Dark.  Featuring all of the exceptional characters that were a standout feature of the original series, A Shot in the Dark is an excellent piece of comedy that also contains some intriguing mystery elements and a unique settings with ties to the crime classic Brighton Rock.  This five-star book comes highly recommended and is guaranteed to leave you laughing for hours.  I am already looking forward to the next Constable Twitten Mystery.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Special thanks need to be given to my partner, Alex, who, on top of her usual editorial expertise for my reviews, happens to be a geek for BBC Radio 4 comedies and was able to help me properly analyse A Shot in the Dark without spoiling the identity of Brighton’s greatest criminal mastermind.

The House on Half Moon Street by Alex Reeve

The House on Half Moon Street Cover

Publisher: Raven Books

Publication Date – 3 May 2018

 

Prepare yourself for an extraordinary tale of love, life and murder in Victorian London, all with a unique twist that will make this book one of the most talked-about pieces of historical fiction this year.

In London, in 1880, Leo Stanhope is a bright young man living the city life.  He is employed as an assistant to a London coroner and is in love with Maria, a high-class prostitute.  However, Leo also has a big secret: he was actually born Charlotte.  Born a woman, but knowing deep inside that he was a man, he ran away as a teenager and has been living as Leo ever since.  Only a few trusted people know this, and Leo fears the day he’ll be discovered.

When Maria is found dead, Leo finds himself accused of her murder.  With his life falling down around him, Leo starts his own investigation into the case.  But what does Maria’s death have to do with another corpse found drowned in the river, and how do Maria’s rich employers and an infamous London abortionist fit into the case?  Leo will risk everything to find Maria’s killers, even if that means revealing his biggest secret.

This is an outstanding debut from author Alex Reeve, who has created a fabulous addition to the historical crime genre.  The House on Half Moon Street has massive potential to expand out into a fantastic and iconic new series.

Without a doubt, the most distinctive and memorable part of The House on Half Moon Street is the main character, Leo Stanhope, who is a transgender man.  The first thing that needs to be mentioned is that Reeve has done a great job of writing this character and has produced an appropriate and non-controversial description of a transgender person.  There is a lengthy examination of the protagonist’s views about his identity, which includes descriptions of his childhood, memories of how he has always felt this way and internal monologues on how uncomfortable he felt behaving as a woman.  Reeve also does a fantastic job of portraying Leo’s fears and frustrations at the way he has to live and the way some characters, such as members of his family, treat him.  Overall, this is an emotional and insightful examination of a transgender character in a historical setting, and Reeve has chosen an excellent protagonist for his novel.

The focus on a transgender main character and gender issues works well with Reeve’s great use of the Victorian setting, as he explores how transgender people lived in historical times.  As described in the book, transgender individuals were not treated well within Victorian England.  In one scene Leo describes how someone who was living in a similar situation to himself had recently been discovered by the authorities and institutionalised as a result.  The views and responses of the people who discover his secret also reflect the attitudes of the time, although there are some obvious parallels with some modern opinions, resulting in thought-provoking social commentary.  There are also some interesting descriptions of the techniques, tools and clothing that the protagonist uses to hide his female characteristics and make himself appear more masculine.  Due to differences in technology and social expectations, these techniques are obviously different from modern alternatives and represent some interesting hypotheses from Reeve.

There are also some amazing descriptions of Victorian London, which serves as a great backdrop for this story.  Not only does the dingy Victorian setting help to highlight Leo’s dark emotional state throughout the book; it is also the perfect background for a murder mystery that revolves around the murky criminal underworld.

On top of the compelling protagonist and the wonderful use of setting, those who read The House on Half Moon Street will also be treated to a top-notch murder mystery that also delves into the criminal and policing elements of 1880s London.  The investigation into the deaths is an intense experience that takes the protagonist through a series of different suspects and clues, creating an intriguing and complex case.  The emotional impact of the case on Leo is plainly obvious due to superb story narration, and this proves to be engaging to the reader, who becomes invested in solving the case.  The final solution to the book’s mystery is very clever, and the readers will love how the case comes to its conclusion.

Historical fiction buffs will also enjoy the examination of law and order during the era, as Reeve examines several police institutions, including the work of the coroner during the time.  The protagonist also encounters some of the city’s criminal elements, and there are some surprising crimes that are covered within the book.  Reeve’s use of a transgender protagonist once again comes into play during the character’s investigations, and the reader will be drawn into the scenes where Leo attempts to hide his previous life from the police and criminals.

The House on Half Moon Street is a phenomenal new book that takes a deep and sensitive look at transgender issues in Victorian London whilst also making use of a dark and detailed historical setting and a first-rate overarching murder mystery.

My Rating:

Four stars