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Wednesday 30 December 2009

Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter

By A E Moorat

This novel has one of the best opening lines I’ve read for a long time.

‘Much later, as he watched his manservant, Perkins, eating the dog, Quimby gloomily reflected on the unusual events of the evening.’

This pretty much sets the scene for what is to come: a tale of zombies, succubi and demons. What lifts it out of the ordinary is the identity of the chief Demon Hunter – Queen Victoria herself.

A E Moorat has taken historical facts and characters and woven around them a jaw-dropping supernatural fiction. You’ll recognise many of the players - from Victoria and Albert, to John Brown and Lord Melbourne – what you won’t recognise are the things they are getting up to.

It’s only fair to warn you that this book is very gory. It’s definitely not one for the faint-hearted or weak-stomached. But if you can cope with the rats, the entrails and the unpleasant eating habits of some of the characters, you’ll be rewarded by an interesting and, in places, very comic read.

One of the most engaging parts of the storyline covers the developing relationship between Victoria and the young Albert. As I read it, I couldn’t help thinking – ‘yes, that’s exactly how it could have been …’.

Moorat also explains the true origins of the queen’s catchphrase, ‘We are not amused’. Again, it could have happened that way – but you need to bear in mind the ‘note on historical accuracy’ which appears at the end of the book in respect of all these revelations.

For anyone who is interested in the period and wants to read a refreshing take on it, or for anyone who likes bucket-loads of blood and guts built around a strong and intriguing plot, this is the book for you!

Reviewed by Helen M Hunt

Monday 14 December 2009

First Drop

by Zoe Sharp

First Drop is the first book in the thriller series featuring the heroine Charlie Fox, an ex-army sharp-shooter turned private bodyguard. The story follows her first assignment as a close protection specialist for the teenage son of a wealthy American businessman. Needless to say, things start to go wrong very quickly...

After meeting the author at the Writers' Holiday at Caerleon, and listening to her give a very interesting talk about her life as a novelist, I was a little disappointed with this book.

Don't get me wrong, it's certainly a good thriller and has plenty of action and pace. The style was interesting too, a kind of sardonic "gum-shoe" dry humour. I liked this at first but it did get a little bit tired towards the end. The clipped, minimalist rendition of speech and thoughts began to grate and make me work harder to read it.

I had no difficulty with the plot, which rarely strayed from the linear. This was probably a result of the book being written in the first-person voice of Charlie, which gives the story a good flow but denies it any real complexity. I did not see all the plot twists coming but those that I did spot were telegraphed well in advance. In the end it did not matter too much because most of the other characters were vaguely "bad guys" anyway, even the ones who were not the ultimate criminals.

First Drop is available from St. Martin's Paperbacks, ISBN 978-0-312-93704-1.

Reviewed by Captain Black

Saturday 5 December 2009

Under The Dome

By Stephen King

There are people who say that Stephen King is past his best. There are people who say that he has become less sympathetic, more misanthropic since his accident at the turn of the last decade. There are people who say that he can’t write endings. And then he goes and writes “Under The Dome”.

At 877 pages, this is a big book with a capital B, I & G, bigger even than “The Stand” (a lot of people’s favorite King book). But even at that length it doesn’t feel underpowered, slow, or tricked out with padding and accessories. Uh-uh, this book is a souped-up, stripped-down custom car, pedal-to-the-metal, no time for sight-seeing, barely a stop to refill the tanks.

Its size begs comparison with “The Stand”, but the similarities don’t stop there. King has said elsewhere that the failing of “The Stand” was that it had too much space, that the survivors of the Captain Trips flu had the whole of the country’s resources with which to rebuild society. So, in “Under The Dome” he re-addresses the themes of the earlier book, but in a highly compressed environment. Instead of the whole country, the setting is a town of a few thousand people cut off from the rest of the world by a mysterious invisible, unbreakable wall. Instead of the months it takes for events to come to a head, the whole passage of this book is less than a week. Instead of unlimited resources, the inhabitants have the contents of the local supermarket, and a rapidly staling air supply.

Spot the other similarities: an outsider/drifter hero, a man with a burden of guilt on his conscience; a religious maniac; an upright, courageous heroine; a sympathetic police chief; a plucky kid genius; a song that is on everyone’s lips; a society that is devolving into Civil War, because of one man’s lust for power.

But “Under The Dome” is more, much more than a rehash. It is also a parable about isolationism, pollution, about politicians claiming the mandate of God, about seeing terrorists in every shadow, and using the threat of terrorism to promote fear, force through fascist policies and take an ever tighter grip on the people.

And more than this, it is a gripping read, and King, whatever failings he may be accused of, is never less than a master of readable prose. As a plot mechanic, he weaves his multiple strands to keep the reader turning the page (and, in this reader’s case, actually shouting out warnings to the characters of what lies around the corner). The characters themselves are warmer than King has created of late - “Duma Key” being a notable example of a less-than-sympathetic lead - and King’s habit of killing his cast offhand and callously that was demonstrated in that book is reined in tightly here. That is not to say that anyone is safe, far from it; but in “Under the Dome”, when King has someone die it serves a purpose both to the narrative and to the reader’s sense of the inevitable (and sometime unjust) nature of death.

King is often dismissed as a “horror” writer. In truth, with books like this he is much closer to the British “disaster” SF novelists of the Fifties (John Christopher and Wyndham, for example), and perhaps “Under The Dome” will go some way to making him appreciated as something more than a horror comic writer with delusions of grandeur.

He still can’t write endings, though. But sometimes it is the journey that counts, not the destination.

Reviewed by Mike Deller