Murder In Absentia - Assaph Mehr

Rara Avis.

'Our city may be named after the regal birds that grace our shores, but our people march on squid.'

Egretia is Ancient Rome, but Ancient Rome in a parallel universe where magic is real. This is historical urban fantasy at its best and it will appeal to all who have enjoyed the works of Lindsey Davis, Rosemary Rowe, Steven Saylor, David Wishart, Ruth Downie, Jane Finnis and a handful of other authors who have set their whodunit solving heroes lose in a Roman setting. But Assaph Mehr's hero, Felix the Fox, has both the advantage and the disadvantage of living in a world where magic is real. He has some small command over it himself, but he is up against those who know much more powerful spells than he does.

Then story opens with Felix being asked to look into the strange death of a local official's son. It turns out an ancient and powerful magic had to be involved and Felix has to call on the knowledge, skill and ability of several friends and enemies to try to get some idea of what is going on. Secret cabals and ancient manuscripts, death curses and pretty actresses, sea voyages and gladiatorial games, mysterious prophecies and mythical beasts that are real in his world, all play their part in helping Felix track down the reason the young man died.

'I am not usually afflicted by bouts of honour and disposing of the bodies in the nearest sewer would have been quicker, but I have seen enough vengeful shades of the dead not to want one associated with my home.'

This is a well written book with a well developed and believable world. The author has clearly spent a lot of time researching into Ancient Rome and then taking the history and using it as a brilliant raw resource to craft his own landscape of an alternative Ancient Mediterranean world. It is not only Ancient Rome we see on display in Egretia, but Ancient Greece (Hellica) and Egypt (Mitzrana) as well. The characters are very well painted into the background scenery, even those we only meet in passing like Crassitius, the lanista who hires Felix a bodyguard gladiator, have their own personalities well shaped and on show, the result is a very solid and totally credible world.

The pace is well managed, a little slow perhaps at the beginning due to some scene setting, but quickly picking up to a pleasing clip which is then maintained throughout the rest of the book. The story has some extremely intriguing twists and turns and I would be telling fibs if I were to try to claim that I saw the final denouement coming in advance. To make the whole even more of a delight, the book is lightly garnished with touches of humour.

'She tried to snatch her hand back, but found it bound to the table with the shimmering tracery holding her wrist tight.'

My main criticism of the book is in the earlier pages when the amount of information delivered almost turns into a lecture. Correction, it does turn into a lecture at a couple of points. A slightly less heavy hand would have created a better impression from the off, but I have to say it is swiftly forgotten once the book gets going. The other issue I feel which was skated close to, but never quite breached, was the limits on the magic Felix could command. On a couple of occasions it did brush very lightly against being a bit too convenient that he just happened to have a spell that could do what was needed.

Overall, I loved this book. Anyone who, like me, has hunted out just about every author of Roman whodunits or who loves urban fantasy with an alternative historical twist, will want to read this.

Those who would like to can obtain a copy of Murder in Absentia here.

Warren Dean - First Contact

Warren Dean is a master of first contact science fiction. His books are all really well written and they unfold credible, and very different, views of how we may one day meet aliens. I thoroughly enjoyed his books, recommend them unreservedly and hope there will soon be more.

The Forever Gene

Who wants to live forever?

We won't know the answer for decades, perhaps even centuries, but our current research indicates that the gene will extend a person's life indefinitely.

For most science fiction books one key advance, such as the idea of a genetic manipulation that will halt the aging process, would be the basis of the entire plot. But the technology of the title is only one of the threads in The Forever Gene which is brimming with interesting concepts as well as an excellent first-contact storyline.

The Faerie Folk are aliens of an elven appearance and they arrive one day without warning to offer Planet Earth access to their spacefaring technology.

David Herald was the creator of the Forever Gene which freezes biological age when it is applied. He is no selfless humanitarian and makes big money selling the precious gift of life. He and his wife, Pris, run a clinic where the procedure is undertaken, offering effective immortality - but only to those few financial fat-cats who can afford the multimillion dollar price tag. When the Faerie Folk arrive David and Pris find themselves being asked to apply the procedure in a highly unusual way, in return for which they are, apparently, well rewarded.

One of the aspects I love about this book and indeed about all of Warren Dean's writing that I have enjoyed so far, is the open internationalism. Any nation can become the place where events happen and if they do, then it is portrayed in a non-partisan way. In this case, the aliens arrive in Ulan Bator and one of our heroines is a Mongolian journalist, Qara-Chinoa. She is befriended by one of the Faerie Folk - a translator with the expedition called Vi. It is a relationship that turns out to have far reaching consequences.

Aided by blueprints from the Faerie Folk, an international consortium begins building an interstellar-capable craft from a base on the moon and there we meet Katya Kasparova, second in command of the Russian delegation to that consortium and someone who becomes a key player in events after the aliens have left earth. When the aliens do leave, their parting gift is one that seems beneficial, but leaves tremendous issues in its wake. Issues which affect the lives of everyone on earth and lead to dramatic consequences that push humanity out into the stars.

It struck her that the predominant concepts reflected were beauty, nature, and co-operation rather than conflict, passion, sorrow, and sacrifice, which were thecommon themes expressed in human artwork.

The story is generally well paced and the writing style excellent. The characters are mostly the kind of people you can believe in, root for and want to know more about. The plot is credible and exciting and the futuristic technology is intriguing, creative and well explained where needed.

For me the only slight flaw was that I was not fully accepting of the reaction of humanity as a whole to the gift of the Faerie Folk. Some of the things that the author saw as being key problems were ones which I could see there being little issue resolving. But that is a personal view based on my own, perhaps too optimistic, view of humanity. And on a side note, I did feel the author made an odd choice in highlighting the UK as a place where religious sentiment in relation to morality was deemed to have real influence. Even today it is one of the top five least religious countries in the world. But these are minor gripes when set against the overall story.

I would whole heartedly recommend 'The Forever Gene' to lovers of sci-fi and to those who enjoy apocalyptic and dystopian fiction too. I am hoping that there will be more books in the series available soon.


The Treasure Hunters

It is hard to write too much about what I liked in this novella without moving into spoiler territory, but I will try.

To begin with, it is as the title tells us, about treasure hunters - but not just in the modern day. The binding thread of the separate, but inter-woven, adventures told in very different time periods is the same lure of treasure, even if the motives vary from seeking wonder to seeking wealth - to seeking something else altogether. Each step on the ladder of time is a complete story in and of itself, but nests together with the others to give a fuller picture. It is this careful crafting of each sub-story which gives the overall book its strength.

The writing is lucid and fluid and the author shows a good command of the technicalities involved - presenting them in a way that does not get too exacting or demanding on an ignorant reader like myself.

The questions left at the end of the book point the way forward to something more, but it still finishes in a way that allows a reader to feel they would not have been short changed if nothing more was ever added.

I enjoyed it.

Return of the Treasure Hunters

I really enjoyed this book. It is definitely best read having enjoyed the introductory novella The Treasure Hunters as that more than sets the scene for this story, it underpins and enhances it. The Treasure Hunters asks questions which this book begins to answer and some of the awe and wonder of that would be lost if you have not made the journey with Patrick and Molly and have not followed the Christina de la Fuego on her voyage of adventure.

The story begins some forty years after the last book closes and is set in the near-future, when Patrick and Molly tell their eldest son Connor the source of their wealth and then discover it is missing. The reason for that becomes apparent when all of humanity falls under threat. The involvement of Connor and his parents in trying to avert this threat form much of the rest of the story.

But there is a second story, that of Christina - of the Christina de la Fuegofame - the daughter of the man we met in The Treasure Hunters, who had named his ship for his red-haired daughter. This story is almost complete in itself, a parallel and fascinating historical odyssey of a woman in a man's era making her own mark in her own way.

We also learn something of the story and motives of those who have come across space-time on their own treasure hunt and glimpse into a vastly grander universe through a brief window with them.

The stories all flow together in unexpected manner, but in a way which also seems perfectly natural and unforced. Something that is a great strength of the author - like peering into a prism through its different facets and allowing the final rainbow of light to emerge seamless.

Most first-contact story lines leave me struggling to really believe in them, but this one has a really solid ground and that carries into the story, gathering power and conviction as it goes. The response from humanity is, in my view, very well explored and the unexpected resolution both satisfying and totally credible.

If you enjoy concept sci-fi with a human face, you should pick this up. If you enjoy a well written story with interesting characters, you will enjoy this. But do read The Treasure Hunters first or you will miss out on so much which gives this book its ultimate appeal.

I look forward to the next novella in the series.

Eric Michael Craig

Eric Michael Craig

One of my favourite authors, I can recommend these books to anyone who enjoys good writing in the science-fiction genre - and the Atlas and the Winds books are going to appeal to those who enjoy a thundering good thriller too! From the same stable as Michael Crichton, Eric has the science background and the human insight to bring that extra convincing depth to his stories.

Find out more about Eric and his projects here.

The world is about to end - but no one is telling

"Several years ago, Carter and I circulated a plan to deflect large asteroids by using a series of timed nuclear detonations."

Stormhaven Rising is a fascinating book. It is billed as science-fiction - and it is, superb and hard 'real' science fiction where the physics stands out for being fully feasible - but it could also be quite happy sitting on a shelf next to political thrillers or even near future dystopia novels. In fact anyone who enjoys a well written, tense plot will find themselves well rewarded if they pick up this book. The book is the first in a series called 'Atlas and the Winds' - a nod, perhaps to Ayn Rand, whose John Galt may bear a passing resemblance Eric Michael Craig's Colton Taylor, but for my money this is more like Robert Heinlein meets 'House of Cards'.

The basic premise is of a meteor heading for the earth and predicted to impact smack-bang in the middle of North America. At the point where it is spotted it is still two years away. But only one observatory has spotted it and the US government moves to clamp down on the news. But one of the people from the observatory escapes to Stormhaven - a kind of futuresque city owned and run by tech magnate Colton Taylor. Stormhaven has developed incredibly high levels of science - even a space capable vessel - but no one really knows it is anything other than a corporate HQ.

There is then a massive standoff between the US government and Colton Taylor which forms the main conflict of the book. Taylor wants to launch into space believing he should be better off trying to save a handful of humanity, rather than try to get the world to join forces fast enough to find a way to defeat the meteor and the US government wants to stop him taking off. Meanwhile the world governments try to come up with a way to deal with the incoming meteor.

There is no doubt about it - this is a very well written book. The use of language is fluent and appropriate throughout. It is very easy to read and attains that essential threshold at which the words almost slip from conscious awareness leaving only the story they are telling in their wake.

The plot leaps into life from the first page - an opening scene with one of the astronomers fleeing to Stormhaven and seeking to avoid being stopped on the way. This same thriller-like pace is maintained well throughout, with some quieter moments to review the science or for a little bit of character building.

"Mr. Taylor achieved financial success through the deployment of a technology colloquially known as the Broadcast Power System. Although not widely known, this device is a miniaturized generator that directly converts inertial field energy to electricity."

The world is our own, but in the near future with a few technological advances like Colton Taylor's own. The depth of characterization varies a lot - some are here and gone so fast you barely have time to get to learn their names, some are fairly stereotypical, others are developed very deeply and well.

So what is not to like? The answer for me is 'Not a lot'. Only one thing, in fact, and that is purely a matter of personal taste. I was not a fan of the immense cast of characters through whose many eyes we get to view events. It was a bit of a distraction for me to have to shift point of view so many times - often to a character we only met that once and for a couple of pages. But there was still plenty enough time spent on those who become main characters, for me to successfully bond with the story on its human level.

Even as I write this, I have already starting on 'Prometheus and the Dragon'  as I could not wait to find out the impact (pun intended) of the cliff-hanger ending and I am delighted to see the series is planned to include at least another three after that.

All in all, this is a book that is going to be enjoyed by most science-fiction enthusiasts. It is also a book for everyone who loves well-written, taut, action thrillers and political drama. It is not a book for those who want to sleep easy and not think about the possibility that a lump of rock somewhere in deep space could even now be heading our way....


A Book With Maximum Impact

“Does anybody else feel like we’ve just been made responsible for the entire future?”

'Prometheus and the Dragon' is the aptly named second book in the 'Atlas and the Winds' series and follows up on 'Stormhaven Rising' with a powerful continuation of the story.

Antu is coming - a lump of rock which will destroy human life on earth. Instead of co-operating to meet the challenge, the world has fragmented and there are various nations attempting individual projects to deflect it. But some seem to think the chance of those efforts failing is high and prefer to invest in lunar colonies - or in repositories of genetic material, human, animal and vegetable.

The technology exists to deflect Antu and is already doing its job. Given just a reasonable modicum of good fortune the world will be saved. But a string of accidents and disasters could still seal the fate of Planet Earth and bring disaster instead of survival.

“If it weren’t for you, we’d have no hope at all”

The people most at home on the moon are Colton Taylor's future-tech company. They already have solutions to many of the problems the other lunar colonies have yet to even think about. I liked it that in this book that we get to know their people (and AI) in a bit more depth and start to see the reality of the man behind them. They are the real heroes of this story and it is their people we shadow most closely and come to care most about - except possibly the US President whose 'pink fuzzy slippers' moment is one I cherish.

This book has insight and insanity, humour and horror, courageous feats and catastrophic fiascos, it shows humanity at its finest and its most feral. And as with all good literature, it turns the mirror back on those who are its readers, challenging them to consider where they would stand or how they would fall.

“We’ve still got work to do out here. Suck it up for now, and let’s get through what we’ve got in front of us. We can both fall apart later.”

So what is not like? Not much - very little in fact. I still struggled a bit with what I felt was an overlarge cast of characters, leading to frequent shifts in viewpoint and all too often it seemed we only met someone so they could die horribly a few pages later. I also found the description of the logistical detail a little overwhelming - but I do recognise that this is something another reader could find adds verisimilitude and solid foundations to the story. But these minor issues were not enough for me to be taken away from the roller-coaster ride of immersion in a storyline which put a bit extra into 'existential'.

This is a very well written and compelling book and if you enjoy political thrillers, near future dystopias, apocalyptic sci-fi - or seek a thought provoking and plausible insight into one way humanity could react in the face of such an extreme crisis, I would recommend this book wholeheartedly. But I would also recommend reading 'Stormhaven Rising' first or you will miss out on some valuable scene setting and a thundering good tale.

For myself, I am looking forward to seeing how the story continues and develops in the next book which I hope will be out in the not too distant future

Ghost Out Of The Machine

He'd discovered that getting money for science, was tougher than getting it for a three headed leper who wanted to have sex in public and call it art.

Alan Steele is a scientist with a crazy idea and no money, then an angel investor turns up who is also an attractive woman with whom he falls in love. Life is perfect, he develops his dream. But then things - of course - have to go wrong...

Naturally, considering who the author is, the science is futuristic and well founded. If you want to know how it might one day be theoretically possible to transmit matter - and people - directly over distance, this will tell you the kind of basis such science would need.

Every short story needs a twist and this one twists like a knife in the guts - you don't really see it coming until it impacts.

"So you're chasing Heisenberg uncertainly through the corridors of quantum indeterminacy?"

So what is not to like? Nothing for me, but those who read this author for his hard sci-fi might prefer to stay clear, this is definitely science fantasy not hard sci-fi.

I would totally recommend this short as a brilliant introduction to the writing of Eric Michael Craig, Although it is very different from his main 'Atlas and the Winds' series, it showcases the typically Craig narrative style and his command of language to tell a thundering good story.

The Mandolin Mysteries - Three Short Stories

What can I say about Robert Lee Beers? He is talented, funny and makes you believe in his strange urban fantasy take on San Francisco. Tony Mandolin is a marvelous literary creation and I'd recommend getting to know him as soon as you can.

Holidazed: a Tony Mandolin Mysteries short story (The Tony Mandolin Mysteries Book 1)

'On floor 5 things changed, whether for good or bad is still up in the air.'

It is Thanksgiving and PI Tony Mandolin is enjoying the traditional meal and gathering of friends when another good friend, Police Captain Pat Monahan, turns up at the door with news of a strange disaster back at the police station. Ably assisted by those gathered for the celebratory meal, including his work partner, the ex-drag queen Frankie and his romantic partner Alcina, Tony sets out to deal with - well, no one is quite sure.But that is the way Tony rolls in his day job so a little paranormal overtime on Thanksgiving is not going to make him break a sweat - too much...

This is a short story that captures well all the essential elements of Tony Mandolin, from the humour to the good-heart, from the tough city to the strange and paranormal. It also introduces you to the significant people in his life and the nature of the world he inhabits and the strange investigations he gets asked to handle.

I liked that, unlike the other Tony Mandolin books, this is available through KU. If you already are a fan of the series you will want to read this special holiday story. If you have never heard of Tony Mandolin before, then this is your chance to meet him and maybe discover a new firm favourite urban fantasy hero - and author.

Haberdashed: A Tony Mandolin Short Story (The Tony Mandolin Mysteries)

'I’m Tony Mandolin, a slightly worn private investigator who’s seen far too many dead bodies killed in far too many weird ways.'

I love bonsai. I love the way that despite their tiny size they retain all the qualities of the full-sized version. This story does that. It is Tony Mandolin in a nutshell - in more ways than one. The story itself is a classic peek into the kind of adventures Mr. Mandolin encounters in his esoteric life as a PI noir hero in an urban fantasy San Fransisco. It is also a perfect introduction to the many and highly varied denizens of alternative San Franciso who share and shape those adventures with Mr. Mandolin

This time it is the fashion industry that has been hit by weird murder and the close Tony looks the weirder it seems to get. Is there some magical Anti-fashonista on the loose? Has someone set out to punish crimes against fashion?

'This, whatever it was, made hinky look downright normal.'

This is well written, well paced with characters you meet and then feel you know well enough to invite them out for a drink. It has a good storyline and a satisfying ending. Oh - and did I mention it is funny too? Perfect.

If you have yet to discover the Tony Mandolin series, this bite-sized version might be a good entree to the banquet that awaits you. Do I sound like a fan? Hmm, I think maybe I have indeed become one.

Hole Lotta Shakin': A Tony Mandolin Short Story (The Tony Mandolin Mysteries Book 0)

I did enjoy this book - but in all ethicality I can not review it as I am in it! A lot of name checks for members of the Roundtable too. I can say I was there, in that poker game, San Francisco, 1906...