The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

It’s eight hundred years since the collapse of the world as we know. Our civilisation has done a full 360-degree loop and gone back to the basics. No planes, no cars, no IT technology and very few relics of what we have created. After a few hundred years of “dark ages” comes an era similar to medieval times with religion ruling supreme and man living in isolated, cohesive communities.
Christopher Fairfax, a young priest, arrives to such a small village to bury Father Lacey, a parish priest who fell to his death in a secluded area called the Devil’s Chair. Christopher discovers heretical writings of an antiquarian society pertaining to professor Morgensten who anticipated the end of our world hundreds of years earlier. It is a heresy to investigate such writings, but Christopher can’t help himself. With the help of lady Durston and Captain Hancock he embarks on a very dangerous quest – a quest for knowledge.
The Second Sleep is an absorbing fantasy tale about the downfall of man as well as man’s drive to discover the truth and to reinvent himself.

The Book of Sand by Theo Clare

The Book of Sand by [Theo Clare]

The Book of Sand starts as a story of two worlds – almost two different dimensions. There is the desert with shifting sands and dunes that are capable of burying whole cities; the nights are haunted by monstrous, blood-thirsty beings who are neither dead nor alive and who don’t seem to have a stable physical form. In that world a group of strangers is thrown together by fate or rather by mysterious design. The group – referred to as Family – travels by day in search of Sarkpont (a holy grail that has the power to end their apocalyptic ​desert trek). By night they cower in their shuck which is detached and suspended in mid-air to protect them against night-time perils. Spider, possibly of French heritage but that is only implied, is the focal character. We see the Family’s endeavours through his eyes.

In parallel to the desert world, there is the contemporary world of a teenage girl called McKenzie, a science geek, fascinated  with sand and desert ,who one day wakes up to find a lizard in her bed. Her world, though seemingly safe and ordinary, begins to undergo a strange transformation. Others can’t see what she is seeing and soon her mental health comes into question. 

You know that in time the two worlds will collide or merge in some way. The story leads that way. I found McKenzie’s story unremarkable at first, but soon it absorbed me and at some point took over from the fantastical world of the desert. Although you will have six hundred pages to plough through, this book is worth persevering with. Your time will be well invested.

The Book of Sand is a reflective and mesmerising tale set in a dystopian reality which tests man’s resilience. It is about interdependence and commonality of purpose.  It is about togetherness and the intrinsic value each of us represents. All in all, it is an exquisite and thought-provoking story. The ending will take you deep inside yourself, into your past and even your beginning.

A Little Poison by Tim Stretton

Estranged from his aristocratic family and impecunious, but defiantly irreverent, Lothar von Schnusenberg walks into a nest of vipers when he arrives in the duchy of Haskilde. His undercover assignment is to sway the duchy’s weak and elderly ruler into concluding an alliance pact with the Empire of Beruz. When the old duke dies, his young and seemingly psychopathic son, Valdemar, succeeds him. If the boy’s own degenerate inclinations weren’t enough, he is also surrounded by cunning rival power’s ambassadors and his own ruthless advisers, notably the notorious Fox. The nest of vipers is stirred into further frenzy when the Empire’s ambassador is murdered. Lothar is appointed his acting successor, and at the same time, stands accused of his murder. The vipers slither all around him, ready to execute the final and deadly strike.

Lothar is not entirely defenceless. Resourceful and clever, conversant with poisons and other low-key weapons of choice of any decent spy, he is in fact in his own element. But more significantly, he has friends. One of them is Torkild, navy lieutenant who is developing the duchy’s new secret weapon: naval steam warships. There is also the fiercely independent and intelligent Edda. And finally, Lothar’s romantic interest, Asta, who also happens to be Duke Valdemar’s governess. All of the characters are drawn with an assured hand and go on take on a life of their own as the story unfolds. They are very complex and dynamic. They will surprise you, entice you, deceive you and prove you wrong. You will grow to care for them, and in some cases, to despise them, but you won’t be indifferent to any of them.

Stretton’s world, of which he has laid foundations in “Bitter Sky”, expands and fully immerses you in “A Little Poison”. It becomes so intricately developed, with regions and nations fleshed out and geo-politically interlinked, that at some point you will feel that this is no longer fantasy but a real place somewhere there in the time-space fabric of your own universe.

The language, and particularly the dialogue, remain trademark Stretton. In a number of scenes revolving around personal relationships, I had a peculiar impression that Jane Austen stepped in to lend the writer her unique style.

All in all, an absolutely engrossing spy adventure with a dose of romantic intrigue and, of course, the inevitable flare of warfare. Loved it.

Something Wicked by Tom Williams

Something Wicked by [Tom Williams]

If you enjoy light, amusing and elegant humour and would relish the thrills and chills of the supernatural kind, the Something Wicked is definitely for you.

Lord Penrith is murdered by exsanguination, with only two drops of his blood left on the carpet. When an investigation into his bizarre death commences, two worlds collide, but not necessarily clash: the modern and rational world of detective Galbraith and the darkly mysterious, ancient world of secret agent, Pole. They are the worlds of humans and vampires. Williams pits the two characters against each other and at the same time brings them together rather amicably in their collaboration to track down the killer.

London features prominently in this novella. The author’s intimacy with its boroughs, squares, back alleys and all its unique rhymes and rhythms is evident. The late night’s excursion into Brompton Cemetery will send a shiver down your spine, but don’t fear – it won’t give you nightmares. This humorous detective thriller isn’t a horror. And did I mention the thrills of tango?

Williams doesn’t fail to bring history into the equation – after all, his day job is writing historical fiction. I enjoyed his exposé on the arrival of vampires in Britain and the bargain Pole (then Ivan Paolo) had struck with Charles II.

All in all, a quick fun read that will take you out of the box of grey reality.

The Black Coast by Mike Brooks

The Black Coast: The God-King Chronicles, Book 1 by [Mike Brooks]

“The Black Coast” is a classic specimen of heroic fantasy in the best tradition of David Gemmell’s “Legend”.

I devoured Gemmell’s books in my twenties. I think I read them all. “The Black Coast” brought back the spirit and the flavour of those old fantasy masterpieces.

In this story Mike Brooks introduces us to several richly-drawn characters. My favourites are Saana (the chief of the Brown Eagle clan – Viking-like sea raiders of Tjarokorsha) and Daimon (the adopted son of the thane of Black Keep, a southern province of the kingdom of Narida). The worlds of these two leaders collide – and converge – when Saana leads her people to the shores of Narida as they flee from the bloodthirsty agents of The Golden (a demonic draug). I really appreciated the author’s novel take on gender identity in this book and loved the way Saana referred to herself as “this man” based on her interpretation of Naridan hierarchy. Saana is pure power and compassion – an ideal leader. Daimon has to make heart-wrenching choices between his kin and the survival of his people on the whole. His dilemmas are agonising, and utterly believable. There are huge depths to Daimon’s character.

The worlds/societies/cultures that clash in this book are perfectly realised: the Black Keep setting with its sars-warriors with their strict code of honour on the one hand and its relaxed and tolerant society on the other; the degenerate court of the God-King Natan and his sister’s Talia wicked manoeuvres to destroy her enemies; the hordes of raiders led by Rikkut and so on.

Apart from this being a grand and engrossing epic, it also has a wonderful message of diverse people coming together for their greater collective good.   

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

How much magic, peril and adventure, how many wizards, heroes, dragons and trolls, how much wit and laughter is it possible to squeeze onto a disc carried by just four elephants standing on a single, albeit giant, turtle? The sky is the limit, but only if your name is Terry Pratchett.

The Colour of Magic will take you out of the grim reality of the year of the pandemic and into multiple fantasy worlds where everything is completely other-worldly and belly-laughingly hilarious.

Twoflower, a tourist who arrives in the city of Ankh-Morpork (on its rougher side) acquires special protection from a (failed) wizard Rincewind, primarily because of his Luggage which is filled with riches the criminal fraternity of the city has never seen before. Like a caterpillar, The Luggage travels of its own accord, using its many busy feet, and that’s not even the most puzzling thing about it . Rincewind and Twoflower meet villains, dragons, trolls and all matter of characters who either assist or obstruct them on their travels. And then they come to the edge of the disc. I can’t say anymore but the story doesn’t end there – not quite, not once, and not in the conventional sense of the word.

I reached for The Colour of Magic to shake off the blues of last year. I remembered reading I Shall Wear Midnight many years ago with my daughter, and I wanted to recapture that old magic. I definitely achieved that.

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library series Book 1) by [Genevieve Cogman]

The Invisible Library is a mystery of a missing book, an extraordinary edition of The Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tales. The book, which is a unique collector’s item, has been stolen and its owner murdered. Irene (a librarian-cum-spy) and her assistant, Kai, travel to Victorian London to search for the book.
Until this point, a potential reader would be justified in thinking this was yet another historical mystery. But Victorian London is only one of many versions of itself. Cogman’s world consists of many such alternatives. Each universe features an array of beings other than humans: vampires, fairies, shape-shifting dragons, to name just a few. Zeppelins fly overhead. Robotic caterpillars, remotely operated alligators, silverfish and all manner of bizarre creatures get in the way of the investigation. However, finding the book is a matter of life and death, and the librarian’s nemesis, Alberich will not hesitate to resort to trickery, murder and corruption to get his hands on the book. Ancient Language and magic are used, alongside more conventional methods, by all sides to defeat the competition. Alliances are formed slowly and mistrust has to be overcome in action.
I enjoyed the quest aspect of The Invisible Library and found the concepts of the many alternatives of real places and times very intriguing. The idea of magic being a by-product of destructive chaos is original and curious.
I would have liked Cogman to have perhaps fewer magical creatures, but to develop each of them in greater detail and give them more distinguishable features. As it is the vampires are not that different from the fairies, or indeed the dragons.
Overall, a pleasant fantasy read.

Bitter Sky by Tim Stretton

There is something distinctive and distinguished about Tim Stretton’s books. It isn’t just the elegant and precise prose that instantly takes you out of your present location and throws you into something rich, luxurious and intriguing. It is also the setting in time. You open the book and instantly find yourself in an alternative universe and living through alternative history – alternative but very real and believable.

“Bitter Sky” is a steampunk fantasy, but again the setting feels as if it is a snapshot from history – it feels authentic though you can’t quite pinpoint the exact moment in time where it comes from. Despite that, you have this distinct impression that you read about it or studied that period in school. You find yourself somewhere in Germany, perhaps at the turn of the twentieth century. There are hydrogen-powered airships and steam trains/carriages. They would have been experimental in those days, but in “Bitter Sky” they are fully-functional, tried and tested weapons. There is the strife of a small territory to secede from the powerful and dominant empire, to reject tradition and monarchy, and establish its own identity. The small territory, Lauchenland led by its revolutionary elite called Volksbund, has ambitions beyond mere independence: it declares war on the Beruz Empire. The Empire strikes back. I was fascinated with how the author built that world from fragments of history. I delighted in detecting nuanced references to the unification of German states under imperialistic Prussia’s rule, or the degradation of  the lofty principles of freedom and equality of people in the reign of terror and bureaucracy that followed the French and Russian revolutions. “Bitter Sky” is full of historical analogies cleverly dressed as fantasy and presented in a vibrant, action-packed fashion.

“Bitter Sky” is a pacey and dramatic war romp, complete with air battles, morally questionable bombings, tragic casualties and grand victories. But there is more to it. There is the human factor. The von Eck siblings, Erich and Saskia are torn between their aristocratic loyalties to the Empire and their citizen duty to fight for their country, Lauchenland. Erich joins the fusiliers on the side of the Empire and Saskia becomes an airship navigator with Lauchenland Air Corp. Again, historical references spring to mind where nations divided by borders found their people fighting – and killing – each other on the opposite sides in the Great War and WWII. Stretton captures that torturous dilemma between duty and loyalty, between following and questioning orders and between glorifying and dehumanising war. He doesn’t idealise or side with anyone. The Empire has its faults as does the belligerent republic of Lauchenland. There is a thin line between good and evil, victory and defeat.

The conclusion of this book was ingenious – tense and ultimately, very satisfying. It tied together all the loose ends, linked to the opening chapters and neatly encased the story. Tragedy and fatalism, black magic and characters caught up in events beyond their control bring to mind the dark fairy tales of yesteryear. If Hans Christian Andersen was to write a tale for adults, he could well have written “Bitter Sky”.

Tipping Point (Project Renova Book 1) by Terry Tyler

Tipping Point (Project Renova Book 1) by [Terry Tyler]

I had to double-check the date this book was first published. It was in 2017. Already then, the author had the insight of what it may be like when a pandemic strikes: the origins of the virus, the so-called “Bat Fever”, the vaccinations, the quarantine, the panic, the unrest, the control measures, the lies, the whole world falling apart. Tyler’s projections in “Tipping Point” are spot-on! And they will send a cold chill down your spine.

I was swept in the currents of the unfolding catastrophe, following Vicky and Lottie’s escape from the quarantined town of Shipden, their precarious journey to the safe house and Vicky’s desperate search for her partner, Dex. He and other activists belonging to a group called Unicorn have uncovered a sinister plot underpinning the outbreak, thus putting themselves directly in harm’s way.

There are many interlinked threads and subplots in this story with both very personal and intimate themes as well as broader social and political observations. Those are deeply unsettling, firstly because of how probable and imminent they appear to be; and secondly, because of Tyler’s nuanced and realistic characterisation. Every character is astutely observed and so real that I found instant affinity with them. I could easily picture myself in their shoes, experience their fears and think their thoughts.

“Tipping Point” is a crushingly prophetic tale of societal degradation on the one hand and the power of human spirit on the other.

How the Marquis Got His Coat Back by Neil Gaiman

I must confess I haven’t read Neverwhere and, at first, I was a bit lost in this short story. But I quickly found my way by simply following the Marquis de Carabas who in his turn was following the scent of his extraordinary coat stolen from him in mysterious circumstances. We have traversed most puzzling worlds of Below London where tube stations come to life to become characters in the story. Thus we have the Elephant, Victoria and the frightening Shepherds of Shepherd’s Bush. I found that world bewitching.

The Marquis de Carabas’s quest brought to mind another short story, “Overcoat” by Gogol. There too an owner unlawfully deprived of his precious coat moves heaven and earth to retrieve it, and not even death seems to be able to stop him. The coat represents his life. Here too, the coat has given the Marquis his name, his identity and his direction in life. Without it, he is incomplete. His older brother, Peregrine, is his guardian angel in the (many) hours of need.

I have reached for this story because I loved Good Omens and I wanted to discover a bit more about Neil Gaiman. I am hooked.