Year One by Nora Roberts

This is such a difficult and, frankly, strange book to review. The principal reason for this is because from the blurb and the first hundred or so pages, the novel sets up the reader and one set of genre expectations that are, out of the blue, overturned. Depending on what you think of the genre that dominates the novel from thereon in, responses to the book overall will vary. You see, it started very much like Stephen King’s The Stand, a terrific post-apocalyptic/eschatological novel and one of my favourites in the genre (along with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) before it suddenly morphs into an urban fantasy ala Karen Marie Moning’s Fever books, with a little bit of Harry Potter, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis thrown in along with a healthy dose of romance.

 

Basically, Year One by Nora Roberts, starts off as a dramatic apocalyptic story. The opening scenes take us to the Scottish Highlands where the McLeod family gather for their annual Christmas celebrations. Travelling from far and wide, they spend glorious days feasting, hunting, reminiscing and sharing. When the men shoot a pheasant and it lands in the middle of a cursed stone circle (as they do), it marks the beginning of the end as the men, somehow, become infected with a deadly sickness that, as they leave the Highlands and venture back to their homes in London, USA etc. (all via stopovers in other major centres) spreads and kills anyone infected. Fatalities rise and the sickness quickly becomes known as The Doom.

The story quickly shifts to New York and the United States generally and, as is usual with these types of tales, we bear witness to the destruction of society and civility as we know it. Events are observed mainly through the eyes of a few protagonists: journalist, Arylis, sous chef, Lana and her lover, the writer, Max, and a paramedic, Jonah, the man responsible for bringing patent zero – one of the McLeods – to his hospital in NYC, and the only suriving member of the McLeod family.

Mysteriously immune from The Doom, these main characters and the people around them form the core of the story as they seek to find other survivors and generally survive – no, more than survive, but rebuild a life. But while The Doom may have spared them the ravages of a deadly disease, it hasn’t saved them from the murderous intent of other survivors who take advantage of, not only the huge loss of life to grab power, but also wield the mysterious abilities some of them find themselves invested with.

This is the unexpected part of the book. From being quite sci-fi in nature as the disease spreads, touching on the collapse of government, media and general law and order, it suddenly (and I mean, suddenly) becomes populated with witches, fairies, elves and all manner of magical beings, all who seem to know exactly what they are even if their talents are still manifesting and growing. There are those who use their newfound abilities for “good” and those who do not. Then there are those who have survived and fear these gifted humans in their midst, calling them The Uncanny, blaming them for the demise of civilisation as we no longer know it and wanting to destroy them. Of course, there are those who appreciate their gifts and the gifted and seek to live with and within their communities.

Herein lies another problem. The good people are just so good and obviously good; the bad are horrendously and mindlessly wicked. There seems to be no good reason (pardon the pun) for their bad. They just are. The clichés and stereotypes are quite extraordinary. Some of the “baddies” give us insights in the form of diabolical rants before they kill the “goodies” – those with powers and without, but most do not. So, why are they doing it apart from bloodlust? I am assuming for power, but it’s not really explained. It just happens. There have been studies and examples that demonstrate that civility is a veneer many wear lightly and when it’s gone, the monster within emerges. But in many ways, these people are just so monstrous, they are caricatures.

But wait, there’s more… one of the intrepid main characters finds she is pregnant. Not only that, but she is bearing a child who has a role to play in the future of the world. As such, there are those on the Dark Side who wish to destroy both the unborn child and her mother. Why? Again, not sure. How do they know about the child and her apparent potential? Don’t know that either. Though there are the occasional characters who speak in riddles and prophesise, but it’s all very ad hoc and strange. I wanted to know how these people knew about this powerful child. I also wanted to know how, after a few weeks of millions of deaths, the shock of loss and crumbling of society, there were those who not only had powers we’ve only ever seen before in the Marvel universe or at Hogwarts, but could declare to any who asked (and were friendly) what “species” they were: elf, fairy, witch etc. It seemed more than uncanny. How do they KNOW this??? I don’t expect they were all Tolkien fans… but then again…

By now you’re probably thinking I am going to say this is a terrible book. But, if you can get beyond the shift in narrative and expectations, it really isn’t. Yes, there are leaps of logic and lack of explanation that, as you can tell, had me grinding my teeth in frustration and rolling my eyes a few times, but there’s a reason Nora Roberts (and this is the first book of hers I have read) is such a bestseller. She can tell a yarn. So, despite my reservations and the plethora of fairy wings (yes, really), I decided to go with the flow, embrace the urban fantasy and enjoy the ride. It was exciting, wild, sentimental in parts, shocking in others, slightly long-winded in some sections and jumpy and lacking in logic in others, but I actually liked it.

The ending sets up the next book very well (even if it does involve a Dumbledore… I mean, Gandalf, no, I mean wizened mentor dude with prescient knowledge offering hope and horror in equal measure) and a tad too conveniently, but hell, by now I just let the story carry me.

So, if you’re looking for something different that’s not a McCarthy, Atwood or Kingesque kind of post-apocalyptic tale, and enjoy urban fantasy, then you may like this. I know I did, despite thinking I was going to be reading one type of book and then finding myself immersed in a completely different one. And yes, I will be reading the sequel. J

Overall 3.5 stars.

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The Way of Sorrows by Jon Steele

The conclusion to The Angelus Trilogy, The Way of Sorrows by Jon Steele, sees the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil, which has been building over the last two books, reach its climax in none other than the holiest of cities on earth, Jerusalem.

Apart from an epilogue, which takes us back to the crucifixion of Jesus (each epilogue in this series has been poignantly and meaningfully crafted), this novel commences exactly where the second one, Angel City, left off – literally with a bang and with Katherine Taylor attempting to protect her son, Max, from the brutal forces trying to kidnap and kill him. Her erstwhile protector, Jay Harper, a guardian angel come detective, is slowly having his memories restored as the huge gap between ‘beforetimes’ and ‘nowtimes’ is painstakingly narrowed. What Jay gradually relearns about his two and half million years on earth and the role he’s played in the past and must again in the future, may yet save the world.

imgresSo, once again, the quest to save human souls from the dark forces that will devour them is on and heading it is Jay. Accompanying him are his buddy from beforetimes, Krinkle, the DJ, and the mad defrocked priest, Astruc, and his peculiar son, Goose as well as Katherine. Inspector Gobet and his allies play a huge role while minor characters such as the new keeper of the hours in Lausanne Cathedral and Corporal Amy play less but still significant ones.

The prophecy of which we’ve heard parts in the previous instalments is now finally revealed, as are those who have functions within that. Time is of the essence and, from the first page, the countdown begins…

For all that the writing is poetical in parts and Jon Steele is able to craft a story both enormous and galactic in scope, drawing on myths, legends, religion, science, philosophy and maths, as well as crafting intimate portraits of romance, self-exploration and self-doubt, I found this novel less satisfying than the others.

I am still trying to work out why, except that in some ways, there’s a sense in which too much is thrown into the mix. As each step of Harper’s, or Katherine’s (or name any other character) journey towards the end is taken, it seems more convenient (or inconvenient) truths are laid bare. A bit more of the prophecy crops up, or a mathematical conundrum or historical fact/family/act is expediently laid bare/discovered, which progresses the plot and characters forward. Sometimes, it seems so messy and hard to follow. There’s a sense of too much ex machina handiness that at times makes it difficult to suspend your disbelief. I am not sure why this happened at this stage, as in the previous two books, the context and world created made everything plausible within the tale. But maybe it’s just me.

The real and fantasy violence (which is breath-taking and fitting in terms of what’s occurring) is interspersed with inappropriate humour at times, and this I also found didn’t sit well. For example, Krinkle, particularly, as a character, while really interesting, was often given one-liners that detracted from the plot trajectory which was often fast and tight and meant you disengaged, thus destroying the flow of the narrative. His lexical interruptions made you wish he’d disappear in a cloud of ash. Likewise, the arch-villain and God, Komarovsky, is so dark and evil, he is almost a caricature. Any attractiveness or sensuality he once possessed has gone completely, but maybe that’s the point.

Once more, Steele takes us to amazing locations and peppers the book with different languages – Latin, Italian, Hebrew, French and so many more. Sometimes, this is as frustrating as it is interesting and a translation or at least contextualisation of the Latin particularly would have been rewarding. There are ways of doing this in fiction that aren’t didactic or obvious and I just wish Steel had deployed it a little more – particularly in this book where there is so much of it and so many references to the past.

In fact, it’s the scenes that take us back in time that I found really compelling. Whether it was with members of the Qumran Sect, the families (including the wonderful Israeli major) who have preserved and protected the angels’ secret for millennia, the Cathars, or the scenes which take us back to the time of Jesus, Herod and the Pharisees and Essenes, Steele evokes the past with a masterly hand.

A cross between an action-thriller, science fiction, police procedural, military strategy, fantasy-religious retelling and a philosophical treatise on the state of humankind, The Way of Sorrows has much to offer the reader and as far as novels that explore angelogy, is intelligent, well written and mostly, very gratifying.

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The Watchers by Jon Steele

13159052I didn’t know what to expect when I began reading Book One of the Angelus Trilogy, The Watchers, by Jon Steele. Post Twilight, readers were inundated with all things vampire followed by angel-ogy novels and I found the genre quickly grew very tired and predictable. When the publishers of The Watchers invited me to review book three of this series (Way of Sorrows) in exchange for an honest review, I hesitated. I couldn’t very well read book three without first reading the others in the series and wondered if these types of books were what I wanted to invest my time in. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the adage goes, so when I pointed out the problem, the publishers kindly gave me the others and I had an obligation to fulfil.

Can I just say, I am so glad I did. Far from following the tropes of this sub-genre of speculative fiction, Steele introduces an original premise, characters, and plot, wonderful locations and all packaged up in delicious and evocative writing.

The novel opens on the blood-soaked battlefields of one of the World Wars and a haunting scene between a British soldier and another takes place, raising more questions than providing answers.

The reader is then catapulted into contemporary times and placed firmly in the historical city of Lausanne in Switzerland. Here we’re introduced to Marc Rochat, the sweet-natured bell-ringer or keeper of the hours at the Gothic cathedral in the heart of town. Endearingly strange, it’s clear Marc is more than he or any one else (except a privileged few) realise. Enter Jay Harper, a man with huge chunks of his memory missing, a penchant for The History Channel and who is an insomniac. Harper apparently works as an investigator for the International Olympic Committee, only he’s not sure what it is he should be doing. Forthright, strong and brave, Jay is someone who naturally errs on the side of social justice and champions both the underdog and damsels in distress. Only, when he meets Katherine, a simply stunning American high-class hooker with chips on both shoulders, he finds a damsel but no distress that is, until she encounters a ruthless organisation who have plans not only for her, but the entire world.

The novel builds languorously, taking its time to establish characters and then motivation. Some might find this frustrating, but because it’s so well executed every word and scene has a place and you find your comprehension growing with each chapter as these only loosely connected main characters are slowly brought together and understanding dawns for them and the reader.

The climax of the novel is powerful, the dénouement rich and satisfying. Far from simply being an “angel” book, this dense and dare I say, quite literary book, is laden with philosophical observations, pop culture references, laugh-out-loud humour as well as some of the most violent scenes I’ve read in a long while. As well as drawing from other genres, such as detective noir/crime and history, this is a marvellous addition to the “angel” canon and flies high above most.

A very impressive first book that had me opening the sequel straight away. Highly recommended.

 

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Book Review: The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Cliff Rathburn

After I expressed a great deal of nerdy fan-girl enthusiasm for the TV series The Walking Dead, a friend of mine asked (a little scathingly) if I’d read the Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn graphic novels. After all, if you were serious about the show, he said, then you should have at least read the source material. I did not and had not. So, being that kind of guy, my friend promptly loaned me his copy of The Walking Dead Compendium –  the most amazing, awful and unforgettable graphic novel that spans over 1000 pages.

It’s taken me a while to read it and that’s partly because it’s a simply astonishing piece of work and partly because I have been torn between watching the TV series and learning
what happens next through that medium and been worried about getting too far ahead in and/or of the compendium.

As it turns out, I need not have worried. The Walking Dead Compendium is as different from the TV series as the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris are to the HBO series, True Blood.

The Compendium and series commence in the same world and use the same premise as the TV show: that is, after being shot, police officer Rick Grimes, a loyal, ethical man, wakes up in an Atlanta (?) hospital to find the world as he knew it irrevocably changed. The dead have risen and have not only taken over the cities and much of the country, but mindlessly seek out the living and destroy everything in their path. Life as Rick knew it is over.
The Walking Dead, Compendium 1 Escaping the hospital, Rick sets out to find his wife, Laurie and son, Karl and, in the process links up with desperate survivors who, together, face the unbelievable horrors of this post-apocalyptic zombie-dominated world where the real abomination is not necessarily the living dead, but the humans who have thus far avoided infection.

Civilisation is cast adrift from its moorings and the novel seeks to explore how and even if we can recover it. What does it take to restore, not humans, but humanity?

It turns out to be a huge, complex question…

The TV series is utterly violent, gripping and has wonderful performances from all the cast who make you believe in this gritty, terrifying world and how the most ordinary of activities such as eating, sleeping and travelling are contingent on factors never before considered: they can mean life or death. Blood is spilled regularly; bodies are ripped asunder, flayed, blown up, treated with contempt and disregard. Everything is at stake always, and no-one is spared. There’s no sentimentality in this series – root for the hero or underdog at your own peril. Loss and grief are the default position for everyone – no matter what age or sex.

OK. Imagine that (or recall the series) and then up the tension, awfulness and shocks a hundredfold and you have a sense of what’s in store for you if you read the Compendium. Soaked with nail-biting scenes, unexpected pathos and humour, and meaningful commentary about contemporary life, this harrowing take and the superb and graphic illustrations that accompany it deliver again and again.

Watching the series didn’t spoil the story for me, on the contrary, while the cast are pretty much the same and some of the settings are used in the TV show, reading the novel was a visceral and in many ways even more satisfying experience. There are different fates for some of the characters, new and old ones appear and disappear, and parts of the primary story lines differ. The characters are richly (and sometimes too briefly) depicted, the agony of death and loss, the humanity of the survivors (or lack thereof), the heart-warming moments of connectivity and celebration are all captured, as are the terrible consequences of witnessing and contributing to so much death.

At one stage, Rick Grimes asks his wife if he’s evil because he’s lost the capacity to feel, all the destruction and death he’s either witnessed or been complicit in, the fact he weighs everyone he meets on a scale of whether or not he’d be prepared to sacrifice them for the safety of his family, has him questioning his own humanity. It’s a powerful moment and question; one that underpins the entire book: what or who is evil and how do we know?

Trust is also a huge issue as is faith – not in God or some invisible being – religion has no real place in this world (but there are those who cling to it and persuasively). Trust is about each other.

Another important theme is safety. In this grave new world, it becomes the new currency and there are those who exploit and barter safety in exactly the same way but with even more ruthlessness than any modern day commodity.

The illustrations are black and white and for some reason, this adds to their terror and pathos: suffering and beauty has never been so elegantly or realistically (for a comic-style) captured.

If you enjoy dystopian narratives, zombies and what they signify, or if you love the frisson eschatological stories arouse, then I think you will more than enjoy this.

I cannot wait to get my hands on the next instalment or the next episode of season three either.

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