Category: fantasy

The Goblin Corps by Ari Marmell (Pyr, 2011)

After spending centuries on a cunning plan for world domination, the Charnel Lord Morthûl is foiled by sorceror Ananais duMark and his group of meddling heroes. Out of spite Morthûl murders the only daughter of duMark’s liege, King Dororam, who in turn assembles all the armies of the Allied Kingdoms in an effort to end the threat of Morthûl once and for all. Morthûl has no intention of being destroyed by mere mortals and plots a counterstrike that involves forming an elite Demon Squad for a top secret mission. Thus Cræosh the orc, Katim the troll, Belrotha the ogre, Fezeill the doppelganger, Gimmol the gremlin, Gork the kobold and Jhurpess the bugbear are thrown together and expected to get along on pain of an extremely torturous death (or merely the prospect of joining the Charnel Lord’s legion of undead servants). At any rate, they have other things to worry about, like the historic survival rate for Demon Squads being on the low side and not having a clue about the finer details of the mission. Or, indeed, any of them. If the group can survive for long enough and avoid killing each other then perhaps they’ll be the ones who will save the day, albeit for the forces of evil.

Telling a fantasy story from the point of view of the villains is nothing new. Mary Gentle was one of the first almost twenty years ago (Grunts!) and more recently Stan Nicholls (the Orcs series) and Jim C. Hines (Jig the Goblin) have had a crack. So what does Marmell bring to the table with his effort? Subverted tropes, complex characters and plotting? You wish. What you get is course-grained characterisation and relationships predicated on gross racial behaviours, layered with bad slapstick comedy married to a plot ripped out wholesale from a roleplaying quest. That is to say that the Demon Squad go looking for various magical items, during which the big guys (the orc and troll) pick on the small guys (the gremlin and the kobold) whilst the ogre and the bugbear provide comic relief by being really fucking stupid. Some of it is even occasionally amusing:

A keening war cry rose to the uncaring heavens, and it took the startled Cræosh a moment to realize that it had come from the gremlin!
“For King Morthûl! For the Demon Squad!” Gimmol shouted, eyes gleaming with fervor and anticipation – and then glistening blade a shining beacon above his head, he charged madly in the wrong direction.
“Gremlins,” Fezeill observed as the stunned party watched him go, “do not have particularly good night vision”

There is a fair amount of shit-wading to be done to get to those rare moments and there are many more instances of dwarf kobold/gremlin tossing, insults on a par with ‘your Mum’ jokes, ‘funny’ bullying and narrative missteps, deliberate or otherwise. Cræosh uses nicknames such as Nature-boy for Jhupess (because he’s simian and lives in a forest), Dog-breath for Katim (trolls in this world have hyena heads) and Shorty for Gork (because he’s…you get the idea). Oh do stop, Mr Marmell, my sides are splitting.

The repetitive nature of the comedy makes reading the book a complete slog, assuming you are able to survive prose that describes a serpent-like creature as moving “with the speed (unsurprisingly) of a striking snake” or a character losing his balance and staggering “sideways in a clumsy dance as his entire center of balance became, well, uncentered”. There is a later example of such poor narration that is lampshaded as being the fault of the character’s exhausted state; fair enough but this would have worked better if Marmell had done it much earlier and, more importantly, knew the difference between a simile and a metaphor. With wordplay chapter titles such as “Elf Care” and “Ogre and Under”, the book elicited a binary response of Picard-style facepalms and wanting to punch the author in the face.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the pacing is completely broken. It takes 200 pages to find out about the Demon Squad’s mission, the aforementioned magical item hunt, carried out on behalf of Morthûl wife, Queen Anne (one would never have guessed that Marmell got his start writing material for Dungeons & Dragons). There are some sub-plots added for variety, such as Gimmol’s secret talent and from the introduction of dark elf Nurien Ebonwind who wants information on troop movements, but they also take so long to play out that they all collapse under the weight of expectation. Once those all wind up, we’re onto another secret mission that finishes all too quickly before the epilogue and the shocking, shocking I tell you, twist. James Barclay thinks that having fantasy stereotypes thrown in your face is entertaining and fun. I think he’s talking rubbish.

Few and far between they may be, there are occasional glimmers of worth buried in the dross. Genuinely amusing scenes occur from time to time and Marmell’s decision to start proceedings after Morthûl’s grand defeat is an interesting take on the trope (although, again, this was done first by Gentle). Also in its favour is the fact that the book is a standalone and the cover is gorgeous, even if it won’t appeal to fans outside of the genre.

In many ways, I’m surprised that there is still so much shit fantasy published when the genre has been elevated to higher standards. Back in the Nineties, I read far too many Dragonlance novels as a teenager and I would probably have lapped up The Goblin Corps. In the meantime Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch (amongst a good many others) have had fantasy works published that do witty dialogue and black humour a damn sight better and have got fantasy trope subversion down to a fine art. In short, go and read Abercrombie et al instead.

This review first appeared in Vector #269 (February, 2012)


Roil by Trent Jamieson (Angry Robot, 2011)

I won a copy of Roil in a recent giveaway sponsored by Erik Lundqvist and thought that I should read and review it1. Erik was very positive in his review, but I’ve been burned by Angry Robot before. Of the five Angry Robot books I’ve read this year, one was good, one was poor (Chris Roberson’s Book of Secrets – it’s on the TBRASP pile) and the rest were rubbish so let’s see if Roil can do any better.

The book opens with seventeen year-old David Milde witnessing the murder of his father and being forced to go on the run. It’s not a particularly original opening but David happens to be a drug-addict which makes for an interesting spin albeit one that results in a protagonist that spends the majority of the book running from place to place being told what to do and unable to think for himself. Moving on, our next protagonist is Margaret Penn, the daughter of the world’s most famous scientists and on a quest of vengeance after the Roil destroys her home of Tate.

What is the Roil? A superstorm full of monstrous creatures hungry for flesh and heat that is slowly but surely devouring the world of Shale. Ingenious endothermic weapons have held off the Roil’s advance for a time but the only thing that can stop it for good is the Engine of the North, a mythical device that Margaret intends to activate. Enter John Cadell, sent by the allies of David’s father to protect him, and one of the eight Old Men who built the Engine over four thousand years ago. He activated it once before to stop the Roil, but fears what may happen if it is activated again.

Roil is not an easy book to get into. The first half is made up of David getting high and whinging about being dragged around by Cadell whilst Margaret attempts to escape the Roil in a steam-powered car that goes at about two miles per hour. Jamieson switches between his three protagonists so frequently that it’s difficult to form an emotional attachment to any of them, thus in an attempt to get a grip on the book one must concentrate on the world itself. Shale is an intriguing creation but damn do you have to work hard for it. What eventually amounts to a surfeit of ideas is parcelled out somewhat meagrely in the form of the epigrams that open each chapter, made up of a mix of past and future histories alongside political memoirs, folk rhymes and other such miscellany. A few of these are effective but the majority add a confusing layer of detail, spoil the coming chapter or are just hilariously bad, such as the Quarg Hound riff on Blake’s “The Tyger” or the quote taken from a book titled “My Brother The Verger” which sounds like a Jerry Springer Show episode.

Other gaps in our knowledge are gradually filled by Cadell in his exchanges with David. That is before Cadell lays it all out for him. And when I say “all”, I mean all. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, Jamieson decides that a third of the way into the book is a great place for a spectacularly clumsy info-dump on a par with the end of an early Alastair Reynolds novel. It’s around a page of exposition that still makes me wince when I think about it, but confirms to the enquiring reader that Shale is a colony planet and that Cadell along with the other Master Engineers terraformed the planet and inadvertently created the Roil.

The epigrams and occasional info-dumps aren’t the only things that hurt the world-building. It’s also hampered by a severe lack of description of, well, anything. We only get a decent idea of what David’s home of Mirrlees looks like near the end of the book when he passes over it from the air, even though it is Shale’s main city and where most of the political skullduggery occurs. And what of the Roil and its Roilings/Roilbeasts? One can take a reasonable stab at what a Quarg Hound looks like, but what about Endyms (they fly and have large eyes and leathery wings), Vermatisaurs (it’s big and flies but does it have six mouths or twelve? Your guess is as good as mine because the author wasn’t able to decide) and Hideous Garment Flutes?

This brings me to a more general problem with the writing. It’s an apocalypse so exaggeration is par for the course, but the prose in Roil is grandiloquent to a fault. People constantly howl (there’s even a “vast architectural howl” on page 100), soldiers and iron beams crash by Remic-style, Aerokin (living airships) possess flagellum that twitch in “ceaseless hungry jactitation”2 (p15), noise is characterised by “hums and tintinnabulations” (p279) and thunder is “deliquescent” (p280). It’s as if Jamieson thought that breaking out the thesaurus every so often was a quick way of improving his prose. Of course there is a preponderance of Places And Names Beginning With Capital Letters, a trend in genre fiction that is bloody irritating and no substitute for actually telling us what these places and things look like.

Two days ago a bullet-shaped balloon drone flew over the Jut and the wall, passed beneath the Four Cannon of Willowhen Peak and vast and twisting buttresses of the Steaming Vents, and landed on the forecourt of Tate’s Breach Hold Chambers, meeting place of the Council. (p18)

Then there’s the issue with the actual names that Jamieson uses. Well, two actually. The first is a personal thing, in that I think that genre novels should avoid using real world names, although I’m willing to make an exception for the use of famous scientists and sf novelists to name ships, cities and colony worlds. On Shale we don’t have Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein, we have epigrams by a chap named Deighton, Downing Bridge, the town of Mirrlees 3 and Magritte Gorge. I appreciate that coming up with names for people and places can be difficult but this kind of thing ruins any sense of immersion. The other problem is that there are numerous quality control issues, what with the aforementioned Hideous Garment Flutes and a portmanteau created from “door” and “orifice” that is enough to make anyone who likes the English language fly into a rage (an educated guess should suffice, but it’s on page 247 if you must know as I refuse to type it out4).

Once David and Margaret finally meet, the plot actually starts moving but it’s at this point that more characters get thrown into the mix. Medicine Paul (clumsy naming strikes again – he’s a former surgeon turned politician) and Stade take their turns at the narration helm and their addition is detrimental to the focus of the novel. Cadell is subsequently bumped off, passing on his nanotech powers on to David, and thus David gains some agency at the cost of the book’s most interesting character, but not before Cadell gets his Crowning Moment of Awesome whereby he jumps out of an airship with a rope around his waist and proceeds to take out another by punching out the windshield of its cabin. Jamieson then does his best to undermine this achievement by setting up a love triangle between David, Margaret and airship pilot Kara (Jade – not to be confused with Mara Jade Skywalker) which just screams “I’m a shit YA trope”.

Night’s Engines is set to complete the Nightbound Land duology and with the first novel cack-handedness out of the way, it could potentially build on Roil‘s strengths and finish the series well, even with the niggling feeling that the story could have easily told in a single installment if Jamieson had binned the epigrams and trimmed the other POV characters. At any rate, the GOOD-BAD ratio for Angry Robot is slanted heavily towards BAD and I’m going to have to be much more cautious about their books in future.

1 Hush those of you muttering about the Clarke Award shortlist. I’ve actually read Zoo City so that’s on the to-be-reviewed-soon pile, as opposed to the to-be-reviewed-at-some-point pile, the to-be-read-then-reviewed pile or worse yet, the to-be-read-and-reviewed-when-I-find-the-damn-book pile.

2 To save you looking it up, it’s a medical term that means “the restless tossing of the body in illness”.

3 In the extras at the end of the book, Jamieson explains how he originally named his cities after authors he admires (Tate was originally called Bishop after K.J. Bishop) but left Mirrless because he thought that a city should be named that. It’s a nice thought but still a bad choice.

4 Oh all right, it’s “doorifice”. I hope you’re happy now.

Horns by Joe Hill (Gollancz, 2010)

At one stage or another, many of us have drunk too much and woken up with no memory of the previous night. Few though have woken up with horns and the power to know a person’s deepest desires and to influence their behaviour. That is the situation that Ig Perrish finds himself in following the anniversary of the rape and murder of his girlfriend Merrin, an unsolved crime that most of his hometown believes he committed.

Fearing for his sanity – for the horns are only visible to Ig – he finds that a mere touch compels people to confess their sins to him. This leads to the discovery of some uncomfortable truths about his friends and family, and eventually the identity of Merrin’s killer. Thus enlightened, Ig embarks on a course of vengeance, but soon discovers that justice for Merrin may come at the cost of his own humanity.

I’m in two minds about Horns. On the one hand it’s a very readable gothic fantasy with (mostly) superb characterisation. On the other, it’s a bad fix-up of its genre premise with starkly different mainstream novellas, features a ludicrously over-the-top antagonist and lacks a proper exploration of Ig’s transformation into a devil.

Hill paints a vivid picture of small-town America and is deftly able to get to the heart of a character with minimal effort. The novel starts off with a bang as Ig’s unwitting use of his newfound powers leads to an early reveal of the killer but then into a very mainstream segment (entitled ‘Cherry’) which lays the foundation for the triangle between Ig, Merrin and their best friend Lee Tourneau. Providing emotional depth for Ig and Merrin’s relationship, ‘Cherry’ is a well-written rite of passage tale albeit a very different beast to the main narrative. We return to Ig’s revenge quest briefly before turning to ‘The Fixer’, a flashback told from the sociopathic perspective of the story’s villain. Again a style shift ensues but here the greater crime is that Hill, in an effort to make Ig’s devil antihero look good by comparison, deploys such a density of evil clichés that the novella undergoes a kind of literary gravitational collapse.

My other concern with the book is that whilst it sets up an interesting premise in Ig’s transformation, it fails to torment him with any morally questionable decisions, nor explore how Ig feels about the choices he does make. Kicking his grandmother down a hill is probably the most evil thing that he does and that happens near the very beginning – everything else he does seems quite agreeable and thus Ig’s path is never really in doubt.

Still, as previously stated, Horns is an enjoyable tale if you can ignore the stylistic bumps and not delve too deeply into its theological arguments.

This review was originally published in Vector 268 (November 2011)

Werewolf vs Nazis: The Wolf’s Hour by Robert R. McCammon (Pocket Books, 1989)

There is a simple formula that describes this book and it is this:

James Bond + werewolves + Nazis = AWESOME

If that isn’t enough for you, the book also features Hitler, a mad scientist, a henchman named Boots (so named because he kills people with his iron-cleated footwear) and the main character is the son of Rasputin. Sadly, Rasputin does not appear in the book and neither is he is a werewolf which are pretty much the only ways in which this book could have been improved.

Werewolf with a soul Michael Galladin is a British commando/spy who is given the jobs that ordinary men can’t accomplish, such as stealing vital plans for Rommel’s advance across North Africa. Alas, when he spends the night at the home of a wealthy and beautiful woman in Cairo he unwittingly unleashes the Bond Doom Cock on her and blames himself when she is assassinated in his place.

For the next three years he holes up in a remote part of Wales and takes no further part in the war, but the Allies have need of his rather unique skills once again. A spy in Paris has sent word about a dastardly Nazi plan that could ruin the upcoming D-Day landings and Galladin is the only man for the job. He reluctantly accepts the mission to make contact with the agent and to discover more about the Nazi plot named “Iron Fist”. Action, bad sex scenes and flashbacks ensue.

McGammon interweaves the main story in 1944 with Galladin’s backstory as Russian boy Mikhail Gallatinov, how he becomes a werewolf and learns to control his bestial side. Being a master lover as well as a master spy, Galladin invariably shags every woman he meets with some eye-wateringly lucid descriptions which are partly offset by graphic descriptions of his Russian werewolf pack slaughtering animals and men alike, as well as some more harrowing “present-day” scenes set in a Nazi concentration camp.

Alekza made good her promise to dry him off, using her tongue. She began at the south and crawled ever so slowly northward, licking dry his skin, slowly lapping the water that beaded on his shivering skin.
She came to his blood-gorged centre and there she displayed the true quality of an animal: the love of fresh meat. (p361)

From a critical point of view, The Wolf’s Hour is a mess. The prose is awful, with McCammon cramming all manner of wolf or animal related phrases whenever possible, often with unintentionally comic results (see quote above) and the narrative is occasionally confusing as it will merrily switch viewpoints mid-chapter and even mid-scene. And yet it tears along at a furious pace and out-Bonds Bond at times. The werewolves are just the icing on the cake.

The book was written over twenty years ago so I doubt it will happen now, but I’d love it if McCammon wrote a sequel to this book, possibly featuring Gallatin discovering a Nazi solar cannon project (mentioned in passing by Hitler at the end of the book) – Werewolf vs Nazis IN SPACE! I’d settle for werewolves versus ninjas (preferably set in Japan), or even simply werewolf ninjas – the possibilities are endless!

Welcome to the Abyss of Inconsistency and Imagination Failure: Vampire Warlords by Andy Remic (Angry Robot, 2011)

A good story badly told is one thing; a shit story well told another; but a shit story told shittily is hard to praise. Yet I’d say the point about the lack of discrimination in fantasy reviewing is that it’s actually a lack of discrimination on the level of style and form. Too many fantasy readers simply lack all interest in the style and form of a book, are interested only in the content, or more narrowly only in certain hypertrophic brightly-coloured features of the content. ‘Rip-roaring’ can be a euphemism for ‘kinetic and violent, and since that’s all I look for I didn’t notice anything else about the book.
Adam Roberts

Although I didn’t get on with Kell’s Legend, I am willing to concede that it is a book that one could read purely for the ridonkulous action, clockwork vampires1 and prose so purple it’s heading into ultraviolet. I am less forgiving of Soul Stealers however, in which Remic decided to ignore consolidation in favour of even more plot, including the worst twist that I have ever read. With Vampire Warlords, the Clockwork Vampires trilogy ends with a bang in terms of large-scale vampire carnage but a whimper on almost all other fronts. Ignoring style and form only gets you so far, especially when you’re dealing with as many glaring faults as this book presents.

So you really want to know what happens? Right then. The Vampire Warlords have returned to the world and everyone else is pretty much fucked. Hell-bent on wiping out the vachines and turning everyone else into vampire slaves (not a plan with long-term prospects mind), the three Warlords head south to Falanor and take over the cities of Jalder, Gollothrim and Vor. Kell, Nienna and Saark2 survive their plunge through the mountain of Skaringa Dak and are rejoined by Myriam who has been released from the Dark Side with the death of the Soul Stealers. After Kell is persuaded not to run for the hills, he comes up with the master plan of recruiting an army from the inmates of the Black Pike Mines prison, most of whom were put there by him. Despite the efforts of one Jagor Mad (“…because I’m mad” p136), this barmy plan succeeds and Kell takes his army to fight the Vampire Warlords and send them all back to the Chaos Halls or die trying.

I was going to do a breakdown of the plot but there’s just so much of it, very little of which is any good. More importantly it would take about two thousand words which is a level of detail that is quite unnecessary and one that the book doesn’t deserve. What annoyed me more than anything was all of the inconsistencies that range across the trilogy and within Vampire Warlords itself. An example of each then.

In Soul Stealers, Myriam has a vision of saving Nienna from snow lions which stops Kell from killing her on the spot, but it doesn’t happen3. This either means that Myriam lied or because Remic simply forgot about it happening. As you might have guessed, my money is on the latter especially since there is no support in the text for Myriam faking the vision. Later on in Vampire Warlords, we are introduced to two new albino armies that appear alongside Harvesters. Wait a minute, I hear you say. Weren’t the Harvesters helping Graal to bring back the Vampire Warlords? Well, yes, they were. Perhaps there are multiple factions within the Harvesters, but once again Remic fails to address this concern within the books. The albinos show up to save Kell’s army from Kuradek’s Harvesters outside Jalder and then inform Kell that they are now at war with the Harvesters. Those two are just the tip of the iceberg.

Aside from that are more problematic failures of plotting and imagination. When Myriam rejoins the group, Saark notices that she is distinctly hotter than in her previously cancer-ridden state. Nienna naturally gets jealous and starts making bitchy comments to both of them, but keeps insisting to both Kell and Saark that she is no longer a child. Right. Myriam then shags Saark to give him the clockwork he needs to become a true vachine (in a way that sounds about as fun as cytoscopy) and promptly tries to kill him when he refuses to join her in deposing the Warlords and ruling the land. It gets better. Myriam has a(nother) change of heart and comes back to help our heroes. Saark shags her again after he had already moved on to Nienna (when Kell was conveniently absent), and Nienna sees it happen. How do you think Nienna reacts to this betrayal? Does she try to make him jealous or threaten to cut off Saark’s balls or ask Kell to batter the crap out of him (for a third time)? No. She simply sleeps with him as if nothing happened. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Andy Remic and his depiction of women in Fantasyland.

If I had to pick the worst offender, of which there were many, many contenders, it would have to be the explanation for Kell’s blood-bond axe Ilanna. After brief flashbacks to the Days of Blood and endless teasing us over whether Kell killed his wife Ehlana or not, we find out that yes, Kell did kill her. Except it wasn’t his fault because she made him do it. You what? It turns out that Ehlana had foreseen the coming of the Vampire Warlords and concluded that Falanor needed a hero capable of defeating them. In order to create such a hero, she cast dark magick that compelled Kell to kill her and trap her spirit inside his axe, which on the face of it makes about as much sense as the Bionic Commando game (2009) where the great reveal is that all of the bionic soldiers were selected based on having significant others who could be killed and their personalities embedded in the bionic parts to ensure that the soldiers would not reject them. Not only does this explanation contradict Kell’s Legend in which we’re told that King Leonoric’s father, Searlan, was the one whose magick created the blood-bonded weapons (in keeping with Remic’s lack of imagination, there were three of them and yet no mention of the other two), but it absolves Kell of all responsibility for being a bad person. He didn’t kill all those innocent people, his wife forced him do it with black magick. Pity the man who was saddled with an evil wife, a religious nutjob for a daughter (who incidentally gets turned into a vampire and then killed by Kell) and a grand-daughter with less than two brain cells to rub together. This is so abhorrant that I don’t even know where to begin. Frankly, Remic can go and take a fucking hike for trying such bullshit. He probably needs to look up the meaning of the word “misogynist” while he’s at it.

So, in conclusion, the Clockwork Vampires trilogy starts off terrible and finishes abysmally. Even if you are willing, and indeed able, to ignore style and form, it’s remains a trilogy that is utterly devoid of merit and one that gives both David Gemmell and low fantasy a bad name. I leave you with a quote that sums up my feelings of the whole trilogy in a succinct manner and the fervent hope that these reviews will convince other people to give these books and the books of Andy Remic in general a very wide berth.

Cockwork vampires more like.
Tom Anderson

1 Which I’ve been informed was “borrowed” from Guillermo Del Toro’s Chronos (1997), all the way down to the clockwork device that turns Myriam into a vachine in Soul Stealers

2 Who is still alive after having a Soul Gem carved out of his chest. Please note that Saark is still only part-vachine at this point (he’s missing the clockwork), whereas the prime vachine Anukis dies immediately after her Soul Gem is removed, as does the super-human Jageraw who can *time-travel*.

3 And in case you were wondering, it’s not going to happen either as Nienna gets killed because Remic decided that making her a jealous naive child wasn’t enough. She had to act like a fucking idiot as well by charging in to help Kell fight in the grand finale and falling on to his axe.

The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman (Penguin, 2010)

Being an acolyte at the Sanctuary of the Redeemers is not what might one call an enjoyable experience. A bland diet, a brutal training regime and the possibility of sudden death at the hands of sadistic priests, where survival only results in being sent off to fight in a holy war.

Thomas Cale is one such acolyte, a quiet boy who happens to be gifted in the art of killing people. When he is talked into exploring the Sanctuary by two other acolytes, Vague Henri and Kleist, the trio stumble upon a dark secret and are forced to escape to the city of Memphis.

There they find adventure, vice, hijinks and romance but the Redeemers are not yet done with Cale. He is the key to their ultimate victory over their enemies the Antagonists and perhaps the harbinger of Armageddon itself.

With two novels behind him, Paul Hoffman’s first foray into the fantasy world appears to be aimed at the young adult demographic but has been pushed quite hard at the adult market as the next big thing. It could appeal to the former being as is a fast-paced boy’s own adventure, but at the same time its deployment of epic fantasy cliches, thin characterisation and ill-judged worldbuilding makes for a poor showing against other recent genre fiction.

Spending pages and pages laying out your world in unnecessary detail is a charge often levelled at sf, pithily summed up by M. John Harrison as “the great clomping foot of nerdism”. On the other hand, it is necessary to develop a believable setting that holds veracity for the reader and Hoffman fails to achieve this.

Perhaps detail was kept to a minimum to avoid scaring off non-genre readers. However it is not the level of detail so much as the consistency that frustrates. At first giving the appearance of a pure fantasy with the Christ-analogue Hanged Redeemer and the warrior priests that worship him, it scatters a liberal number of jarring references to real-world places and historical figures: Memphis, Odessa, Norway and Poland are mentioned alongside Gypsies, Jews and Jesus himself. Geographically, the book is scattershot with its places and use of distances, which merely compounds the haphazard nature of the setting.

This mix-and-match approach is also taken with prose to an equally discordant effect. Cale’s retort of “I could care less”(p9) being the prime example, along with modern idioms such as “living the life of Reilly” (p158) and “playing possum”(p239). Vague Henri is also referred to as a “sniper”, a term that originated around the time of the British Raj. I’m not usually a stickler for correct language usage in historical fiction or fantasy, but this really did destroy any sense of immersion from almost the very beginning.

Hoffman isn’t going to win any awards for style, but he maintains pace throughout the book, inserting action sequences periodically to keep things moving along. Sticking to swords rather than sorcery, the fantastic elements are virtually non-existent, perhaps in keeping with the minimal worldbuilding, but a prophecy rears its head at the end of the book which is a little much to take on top of Cale’s otherworldly brilliance. Some actual character development would have been a nice way of balancing this out, but that is something else that this book is missing. The acolytes don’t grow in any way as a result of their adventures, and indeed Cale finds himself back where he started with nothing to show for it.

In summary, the book is a confused mess, not knowing which demographic to go for and not having the confidence nor quality to comfortably appeal to both. Purely out of curiousity and some degree of masochism, I’d still like to see where Hoffman plans to take the series, but based on this first installment I would happily live in ignorance unless things drastically improve.

This review was originally published in Vector 264 (December 2010).

Slamming through the boundaries of fail: Soul Stealers by Andy Remic (Angry Robot, 2010)

At the end of Kell’s Legend, King Leonoric and the army of Falanor had been defeated by General Graal and our heroes Kell and Saark were trapped on top of a ruined skyscraper by a horde of cankers. Kell’s grand-daughter Nienna had been poisoned and subsequently kidnapped by Myriam and the Jailers in order to persuade Kell to lead them to Silva Valley, where Myriam hoped that the vachines will give her clockwork to cure her cancer1. Meanwhile Anukis, having rescued Queen Alloria from her vachine captors, is back on her quest to find her father Kradek-Ka and has fallen into a whirlpool deep inside the Black Pike mountains.

In an attempt to avoid gratuitous sniping of the second book in the Clockwork Vampires trilogy, I endeavoured to concentrate on the plot and characters rather than minor issues such as style and form. This proved difficult for a couple of reasons, namely Remic’s writing manages to be worse in this book, relying heavily on italicised text for emphasis2, Capitalising The First Letter Of Place Names to make them seem more important3 as well as the ever-present…ellipses, and more importantly because the plot is complete bobbins. Let’s take the former as accepted and move on with reasons for the latter.

In this second installment, we discover that Graal has harvested Falanor’s population not to provide sustenance for the vachines in Silva Valley, but to provide the blood-oil required to summon the Vampire Warlords from their exile in the Chaos Halls. Graal and Kradek-ka intend to use the Vampire Warlords to remove the inferior vachines in favour of pure-blood vampires, which sounds like an interesting idea until you remember that both of them have worked on behalf of the vachine nation for over a thousand years. You’d have thought they would have come up with a plan a bit sooner right?

Naturally Druss and Sieben Kell and Saark escape certain death (with the intervention of a third party) and settle back into their routine of fighting bad guys, bitching about each other’s faults and walking to the next town. Sometimes the order changes but it’s very much a retread of the first book. Saark keeps up his banter about fine clothes, good food and succulent quims whilst Kell berates him for being a dandy/popinjay/peacock and generally whining about how things were better in the good old days when a man who wore pink shirts would be lynched. The bickering wasn’t all that funny in the first book and repeating the same jokes doesn’t make for any improvement.

Over to the female POV characters. I didn’t have much hope for Nienna and unsurprisingly she is still getting threatened with rape on a regular basis until Kell and Saark finally catch up with her and Myriam. Anukis on the other hand had finally broken free at the end of Kell’s Legend so I was interested to see where that would go. She finds her father only for the git to drug her up to the eyeballs to keep her placid for the summoning ritual. Elsewhere Alloria, having plucked up the courage to return to Falanor alone to find her sons, has to be saved from wolves by Vashell who has decided to try and atone for being an utter dick to Anukis. Female agency – what’s that all about then?

Moving the actual plot in a forwards direction, we discover that the summoning ritual requires three Soul Gems that have been embedded in three Guardian Souls and which only Graal’s twin daughters, the titular Soul Stealers can retrieve. This is all just over-complicating the plot for the sake of it. The origin of the Soul Gems nor the reason they have to be carried by people is never explained, nor is the fact that the Soul Stealers are mentioned in the ancient vachine holy book, the Oak Testament, in spite of the fact that the book precedes the birth of the Soul Stealers. The pair are by and large absent from the proceedings, which makes a mockery of the title, and yet are built up as this unstoppable force that Kell cannot stop, so of course magic is pulled out of Remic’s hat when Kell has to take them down.

I wasn’t going to bother quoting any of the book but this classic moment has to be read to be believed:

They stopped, snarling and drooling, and spread out, circling the donkey, great paws padding and claws drawing sparks from the hard ground, eyes fixed, travelling in lazy pendulous sweeps. Mary eeyored in panic, eyes wide, ears laid back on her terrified skull. Saark found his heart in his mouth, terror running through his veins.
“No,” he muttered, gripping his rapier as Mary hunkered down in terror, bunching her hind quarters to do the only thing she know how; to kick.
“Not the donkey,” wailed Saark.” (p251)

Saark, nobleman, unrepentant womaniser and expert swordsman expresses abject misery at the thought of his donkey being killed by cankers. Words cannot describe the epic fail here. Even if this was being played for comedy it would have been shit but I get the impression that Remic was being completely serious here. I came close to throwing in the towel here folks.

To top it all off, there’s a plot twist that is surely worthy of the TV Tropes shocking swerve page. Alloria, Queen of Falanor, was a vachine all along and she was the one who planted the third Soul Gem in Saark! This means Remic can say “Hah! She didn’t really get raped in the first book by Graal, she was just pretending so ner to all those people who called me a dirty misogynist”. Yah, well, that might have worked with some more foreshadowing, a plausible reason for why two of the best vachines ever (Vashell and Anukis) didn’t notice a fellow vachine in their midst and last of all if Remic had managed to pull it off without flatly contradicting *all* of Alloria’s POV narration. Did everyone who gave this book a positive review think that this twist was acceptable? There’s a difference between switching your brain off for the lol-worthy MEGAVIOLENCE(tm) and being tolerant of the author slapping you in the face with his wang exclaiming “Hah! Bet you didn’t see that one coming!”.

It’s probably a good thing that I was reading this on a Kindle as that is precisely the kind of shit that results in defenestrated books. The book ends on another cliffhanger as the summoning ritual is completed and Kell, Saark, Nienna and Saark jump down a hole into the heart of the Black Pike mountains. Vampire Warlords is up next and then I’m going to be in need of a double eye transplant. Remember readers, I’m doing this so you don’t have to.

1Incidentally, how would an essentially medieval society be able to diagnose internal tumours without using magic? Note that magic throughout the series is always of the evil/black kind, such as Kell’s blood-bond with Ilanna. There is no indication of good/white magic at all.

2 Characters do not merely run along walkways, they hammer down flexing planks, swords slam up or across, axes sing, arrows flash, Kell growls

3 Mainly halls as it goes: the Golden Halls, the Halls of Bone, the Chaos Halls, the Hall of Heroes and the Halls of Shit Prose

4 Evidently Remic’s thesaurus is missing the word “fop”