Thursday, 31 July 2014

LAST GREAT READS FOR JULY, 2014
Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King

Former Detective K. William Hodges is nearing the end of his tether.  Since he retired from the city Police Force, life has lost its edge;  there is nothing meaningful to relieve the boredom of his days, most of which are spent watching inane TV shows, eating junk food and drinking too much. 
Some days are worse than others:  on those days he contemplates suicide and sits in front of his TV with his father’s gun by his side – until the day he gets a letter, purportedly from a man who mowed down a line of jobseekers in a stolen Mercedes, a case that was still unsolved when he retired.
The letter writer seems to know a lot about Bill Hodges, including details of his first name (Kermit); information about his farewell bash (it was a drunken riot of fun!); and even more chilling:  insider knowledge of Bill’s suicidal thoughts.  Is this monster a mind-reader?  How does he know so much? 
The general tenor of the letter is designed to increase Bill’s feelings of worthlessness, to push him into that last act with his father’s gun:  ‘it would be too bad if you started thinking your whole career had been a waste of time because the fellow who killed all those Innocent People ‘slipped through your fingers’.
But you are thinking of it, aren’t you?  I would like to close with one final thought from ‘the one that got away’.  That thought is:
F--- YOU, LOSER.
Just kidding!
Very truly yours,
THE MERCEDES KILLER.’

Once again, Mr King takes the reader into the dark places of minds and hearts with his usual effortless skill.  In this latest opus there is nary a hint of the supernatural for which he is so famous; not a spectre in sight:  instead he writes of the monsters that contemporary society creates who walk among their unsuspecting victims disguised by spurious normality -  as here, where the Mercedes killer is revealed early in the plot as Brady Hartfield, dutiful son of an alcoholic mother and hard worker at two jobs, one as a computer technician, the other driving an ice cream van.  What could be more normal; (even a little sad – the sacrifices that boy makes for his mother!) he works super hard at blending in with everything and everyone – why, he’s practically invisible!
But not infallible.  Contrary to his expectations, his letter has given K. William Hodges (Det.Ret.) a huge boost;  the depressive clouds have parted – his mind, always keen, has something to grapple with again:  start playing the game, Mr Mercedes.  Let’s see who wins!
As always, Mr King provides his main protagonists with great supporting characters, in this case Jerome, Bill’s 17 year old lawn and odd job boy – who just happens to be black, highly intelligent and a computer whizz – but not half as whizzy as Holly, a true PC Maestro who unfortunately is plagued with ‘issues’.  They are Bill’s doughty assistants.  Their dialogue is perfect, crackling and comic (how I wish I could remember some of those one liners!) but it never distracts us from the horror and creeping suspense of a great story.  Mr Mercedes is going to strike again.  But where?  When?  And can they stop him?
Stephen King has once again held a mirror up to contemporary society, and it shows a chilling image, one that is very hard to look at.  Highly recommended.

The Liar’s Daughter, by Laurie Graham

Nan Prunty’s mother tells lies, and the biggest one of all, so everyone says, is the whopper that Nan’s father is none other than illustrious war hero Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, killed at the Battle of Trafalgar.  Nan and her mother Ruby Throssell live a hand-to-mouth existence in Portsmouth, and Nan’s childhood memories are unpleasant, for Ruby likes to drink;  when she is old enough Nan is called upon to earn grog money for her mother in very unsavoury ways, causing her to often wonder why, if her father was the man who vanquished Old Boney and the French so that the British could hold their heads high, she and her mother have to live by their wits.
Ms Graham’s novel spans fifty years of a fascinating period of European history;  from Nelson’s triumphs at sea to the war in the Crimea in 1855, by which time the great man is all but forgotten – except by Nan, whose search for proof of paternity has become obsessive, even though she has a family of her own, all of whom find her convictions tiresome.
Ms Graham’s characters are enormously engaging;  Nan and her mother are apples from the same tree but having said that, the story proceeds at a slow amble until Nan’s daughter Pru decides to apply as a nurse to Miss Florence Nightingale at the start of the Crimean War.  Then the action speeds up.  After several years of good nursing experience at reputable London hospitals, Pru expects to be accepted and is shocked to find that she cannot make the grade, not because of her efficiency, but because of her humble origins:  Miss Nightingale requires only young ladies of good family, regardless of their lack of experience.  Despite that, lower born practical women went at their own expense to the battlefields and made a huge difference, their origins notwithstanding.  In the accepted historical teachings of our day this has been understated to say the least.  Miss Nightingale is ‘The Angel of Scutari’;  ‘The Lady of the Lamp’:  no-one would gainsay that, but  Ms Graham may be sincerely thanked for scrupulous research and candid revelations of typical societal double standards of the time.  This little story is light as a soufflé, but just as enjoyable.  Highly recommended.  

     

    

Sunday, 13 July 2014

MORE GREAT READS FOR JULY, 2014

He Who Kills the Dragon, by Leif G. W. Persson

Detective Superintendent Evert Bäckström, surely the most outrageous policeman in Swedish thriller fiction, returns to shock and infuriate his long-suffering colleagues – not to mention the reader – in Mr Persson’s latest offering.
Bäckström has had some narrow escapes since ‘Linda – As in the Linda Murder’ (see review below) which have nothing to do with apprehending murderers;  rather, the long arm of the law has reached out to grab him (him, shining example of all that is noble and honourable in the Force.  The nerve of them!) and it has taken all his resourcefulness to fend off charges of bribery, corruption – you name it – thrown at him, the result being not dismissal, as so many of his colleagues hoped, but exile for a year or two following up traffic violations - for Bäckström has an influential relative in the Police Association, so there!  He is not incorruptible (as everyone already knows), just immovable.
When the story opens, Our Hero through various circumstances has been recalled to his usual duties, investigating the murder of an elderly pensioner in a block of flats in suburban Stockholm.  He should be delighted to be back on the job, delegating with his usual superb flair all the work so that he ends up doing very little;  instead, he is in the depths of despair after a compulsory visit to the Police Doctor who prescribes immediate weight-loss,  lots of daily exercise and NO ALCOHOL – or else! 
Bäckström is inconsolable.  Life is shit.  Eating lettuce leaves and drinking water is no way to live for a man of his appetites;  he’s a gourmet, a connoisseur of strong drink and a fearless wielder of his Super Salami with various lucky partners in the comfort of his Hästens bed:  if this is his future, he might as well resign from life right now! 
Until God conveniently appears in a dream to Bäckström as he tossed and turned (on his Hästens bed) on the third day of his travail and Lo!  God tells him to forget about pursuing the new path;  the old path is his true path, so get back on it.  What else can Bäckström do but obey?  One doesn’t argue with God!
After a very satisfying meal of every food he loves and thought he’d never eat again, followed by a couple of very good beers, Our Hero is ready to concentrate again on his current murder investigation, and because he has a very good staff and a truly excellent Russian civilian investigator, it isn’t long before what everyone thought was the murder of an old pisshead by another old pisshead and all done and dusted by the weekend, turns out to be something much more challenging and complicated.
As before, Mr Persson gives us a wealth of detail, including mini-biographies of all the minor characters, but there is less sermonising than in ‘The Linda Murder.’  In this story that is not so important, for the dreadful Bäckström is such a force of nature and so outrageously entertaining that there is little room this time round for polemics - and it is an added pleasure to discover that (when he does it) he is actually very good at his job.  Much to the frustration of his superiors, most of whom detest him to a greater or lesser degree, the ‘fat little bastard’ CAN solve serious crimes and get results – whether they like it or not.  And Bäckström finds out that he who kills the dragon gets the princess – and what a princess!  He’s scared stiff.  Highly recommended.

Linda, as in the Linda Murder, by Leif G. W. Persson

This book was published in Sweden in 2005, which makes it a contemporary of the new wave of Swedish crime fiction made so popular by the late Stieg Larsson:  now English-speaking readers can finally enjoy Mr Persson’s singular anti-hero Evert Bäckström thanks to an excellent translation by Neil Smith.
Detective Superintendent Bäckström is short and fat but makes up for his physical shortcomings with a massive ego, native cunning and a happy knack of getting everyone else to do his work for him – the euphemism is ‘delegating’, and Bäckström is  a champion delegator – in short, he is a master at working the system to his own advantage.  None of this burnt-out, angst-ridden cynicism that dogs most detectives of today’s crime fiction:  he is serene in his self-belief and his ability (thanks to his delegating powers) to crack any kind of case presented to him.  And the Linda murder is just such a case.
Trainee police officer Linda Wallin, aged twenty, has been found raped, tortured and murdered in her mother’s flat in Växjö , a picturesque town inland from the Swedish coast.  The police have little to go on initially;  most of the townspeople are away for the summer holidays and there are few clues to get the ball rolling.  Due to the inexperience of the local police in crimes of such seriousness, Detective Superintendent Bäckström is sent from Stockholm to oversee operations.   
And he couldn’t be happier!  He can turn in all his dirty laundry (there’s a month of it) to the hotel drycleaning service and charge it to the job;  he can take full advantage of his room’s minibar and dining room – he can even watch blue movies in his second-in-command’s room while that worthy is elsewhere so that he can state, hand on heart that he would never watch such filth:  he’s in heaven.
Except for the lamentable fact that PC counselling seems now to be reigning supreme in the Swedish police force:  staff feelings and wellbeing must now be considered (by a specially trained counsellor –‘ call me Lo’ -  whose lack of a bosom dismays Bäckström), particularly for those who had close contact with the crime scene – for the love of God:  wouldn’t that be every one
The investigation puddles along at a frustrating rate – and sadly, so does the plot.  Despite the outrageous and diverting presence of Detective Bäckström Mr Persson allows his good story to be overwhelmed by pedantry – which is not surprising, given the fact that he is one of Sweden’s renowned criminologists, an eminent psychological profiler and Professor at the National Swedish Police Board.  He knows his onions, but ….
But Linda’s murder and the unveiling of her killer becomes swamped by Mr Persson’s great scholarship, intentionally or not.  He has several important arguments to make about murder, particularly the selective reporting by the media, maintaining correctly that the media ultimately decides which murder is sexy enough to keep before the public eye for an extended length of time:  those that are solved quickly sink without a trace, especially crimes of passion and that old chestnut, domestic violence:  his points are inarguable but cost the plot vital pace.
Fortunately, Evert Bäckström saves the day yet again:  he is outraged to find that a scheming female journalist who shamelessly pursued him for advance information on the case is now suing him for sexual harassment.  He is furious – not because of the harassment charge, but because she called his display of his ‘super salami’ (‘what do you think of this, my dear!’) an angry red sausage.  She doesn’t know quality when she sees it!
So:  were it not for our fearless, ruthless and unscrupulous Detective Superintendent, this story would be little more than a detailed expository text on a particular crime and how it was solved.  Bäckström gives it sorely needed humanity.  He’s a babe, albeit a short fat one.  Highly recommended.

The Engagements, by J. Courtney Sullivan

In 1947, a young copywriter named Frances Gerety coined a phrase which has resonated down the generations:  ‘A Diamond is Forever’.  The Advertising firm for which she worked had the De Beers Company as a major client and the object was to promote the diamond (the bigger, the better) as a symbol of love, commitment and permanence – not to mention status.  Frances’s work for her bosses at N.W. Ayer changed the way Americans regarded engagement and marriage;   even though she herself remained single all her life, her subtle, brilliant copy cemented irrevocably within courting couple’s minds the notion that Love is Forever too, and the diamond a fitting, starry symbol of that great emotion.
J. Courtney Sullivan has decided to explore in ‘The Engagements’ the institution of marriage, that partnership for good or ill that so many people aspired to as the ideal way of life when the story opens in 1947, until 2012, when one of the protagonists, Kate, considers that marriage is anathema – but will be attending her cousin Jeff’s gay wedding.
In between, we meet wealthy Evelyn in 1972, preparing to meet her dissolute son Teddy for the first time since he left his lovely wife and two daughters.  She and her husband are expecting him for lunch and hope to make him see (yet again!) the error of his ways:  they are devastated when he arrives with his new girlfriend and announces that he has asked his wife for a divorce so that he can marry his new love - ‘ She makes me feel great!’ 
Evelyn and Gerald are shocked and deeply hurt, but not completely surprised.  This is one more example of Teddy’s fecklessness, and yet more proof that he can’t stick at anything, including marriage – as they have done for more than forty years:  a vow is a vow and Evelyn has her rich mother-in-law’s wondrous engagement ring to prove it.  Well, she’ll go to Hell before she lets Teddy’s tramp get her hands on it.  Everything she has will go to her granddaughters.
The action shifts to 1987 and a family who are having great trouble making ends meet:  James is an ambulance driver with two sons.  He has married Sheila, his high school sweetheart and has found through a combination of bad luck and poor decision-making that life can put you behind the eight ball very quickly:  compounding his feelings of worthlessness are Sheila’s parents, ‘comfortable’ and it seems always dipping into their pockets to bail out his family when it should be his job never to have gotten them into that strife in the first place:  he knows that they disapprove of him and his failures and wish that their daughter had made a better choice for a husband.
The last straw comes when his Sheila is mugged and her wallet and engagement ring are taken at knife-point.  Sheila doesn’t care about the wallet but she loved her engagement ring, symbol of an earlier happier time before all the bad luck started:  once again James blames himself – why is he always such a loser?  He has to think of a way to make things up to her, but what?
In 2003 in Paris, we meet Delphine, married to Henri,  fifteen years her senior:  they run a successful business specialising in rare musical instruments and a lot of their clients are rich Americans – until terrorism and the refusal of France to send troops to help with the invasion of Iraq cause most Americans to boycott France in protest.  Henri is forced to take drastic measures to save the business:  he must sell his beloved Stradivarius to the young American violinist known as ‘The Rogue’, currently making a sensation wherever he goes.  It is a terrible day for him, but Delphine is struck by lightning:  she and The Rogue (call me P.J.) fall in love so completely that Henri loses not only the Stradivarius but his wife, as Delphine flies to New York to begin a new life with P.J.  As a symbol of their everlasting love P.J. gives her his mother’s engagement ring.  What could go wrong?  Love conquers all.
Which is Kate’s philosophy in 2012 as she helps her cousin prepare for his wedding to his long-time lover Toby:  love conquers all, but you don’t need to succumb to neo-liberal capitalist concepts (which are all based on advertising, anyway).  She hasn’t:  she and Dan are in a loving relationship and have a beautiful three year old daughter.  They have left the madness of New York City and live happily in the country, much to her mother’s consternation.  Though divorced Kate’s mother deplores Kate’s unwed status – almost as much as Kate hates all the bourgeois industry spawned by the wedding business.  She cannot understand why Jeff and Toby would want to buy into such artifice.
‘Because we are finally, legally, permitted to’ is the answer.  And to seal their love matching diamond wedding rings have been crafted.  Kate is disgusted, especially when everyone knows about Blood Diamonds, but her disgust turns to consternation when she, instructed to look after the rings until the ceremony, loses one.
J. Courtney Sullivan’s fine story has characters sufficiently diverse to make the reader feel as if they are reading four novellas within the book, cleverly linked by a single lustrous jewel.  She explores human relationships with the same expertise that she did in ‘Maine’ (see February 2012 review below), involving the reader completely in their lives, but this time she took longer than before to hook me in;  initially, there was a curious flatness to her writing that was never present in ‘Maine’.  And that is a shame.  Ms. Sullivan is a writer of great ability, and one doesn’t expect stilted prose from such a talent.  Regardless, this is a hugely enjoyable book.  Highly recommended.     

Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan

Three generations of women from the same family congregate at the old family beach house in Maine for the summer month of June – not because they planned to be together, but because circumstance dictates it.  Alice, the matriarch, first came to the property as a newly pregnant married woman nearly sixty years before;  her husband had won beautiful beachfront land on a bet with a friend and since then the family, now spanning four generations, have made annual pilgrimages to this lovely and cherished place.  Alice is in her 80’s, sharp as a tack, a devout Catholic with a tongue like a butcher’s knife – especially on matters of faith – and a defiantly heavy drinker.      
Alice’s granddaughter Maggie has also arrived to stay solo ‘for just a few days’;  the original plan of spending some idyllic time there with handsome but feckless boyfriend Gabe scuttled after a huge fight that has ended their relationship.  The problem now is that Maggie’s plan of confessing to Gabe that she is pregnant – in a setting guaranteed (she hoped) to introduce him gently and romantically to the responsibilities of impending fatherhood – has been thwarted:  she finds that at the age of thirty-two, she will have to soldier on alone.  Gabe informs her by email that he can’t deal with fatherhood ‘at this point in time’, which means it’s time to bite the bullet and inform the rest of the family, specifically her mother, Kathleen.
Kathleen is the oldest of Alice’s children, a former alcoholic and intentional rebel against everything that Alice holds dear:  thanks to several massive family confrontations, one involving the death from cancer of Kathleen’s beloved father Daniel, Alice and Kathleen are bitter foes.  Kathleen has sworn after her father’s death never to return to Maine – until she gets the news of Maggie’s pregnancy;  then she swoops in from California to take charge of her errant daughter and do battle with her detested mother.
And into this mix is added the long-suffering, martyred Ann Marie, Alice’s daughter-in-law, married to son Patrick (‘I am the ONLY one of this family who looks after YOUR mother and what thanks do I get?), who  has reluctantly arrived two weeks earlier than usual to keep an eye on Alice (and her drinking) because she couldn’t persuade Kathleen to come from California to do her family duty – until Kathleen gets the news of Maggie’s dilemma.  Ann Marie is furious.

The stage is set for family fireworks, and Ms Sullivan does not disappoint us:  she writes beautifully of fraught family dynamics, the struggles of successive generations to break iron-bound ties of faith and Irish conservatism, and the attempts by Kathleen and Maggie to be as unlike spiteful Alice as possible, without realising that they are more like her than they can possibly imagine.  No-one to their lasting regret has inherited Daniel’s sanguine and sunny nature, that calming and amiable influence that always steadied the family ship, and as Alice eventually reveals yet another bombshell guaranteed to shock her divided family to the core the reader is treated to the long-secret reasons for all the family slights and resentments.  Each woman has successive chapters to herself, a narrative device that works particularly well here, and by the end of this tender, funny and loving tribute to an American family, the reader feels as familiar with the Kelleher family as their own.  Ms Sullivan portrays beautifully ‘The importance of generations:  one person understanding life through the experiences of all the people who came before’.  Highly recommended.          

Sunday, 6 July 2014

FIRST GREAT READS FOR JULY, 2014

Where the Rekohu Bone Sings, by Tina Makeriti

What a pleasure it was to read this story.  Ms Makeriti’s prose is rich and powerful;  it sings with utmost poignancy of the Moriori, a peaceful people hopelessly outnumbered, subjugated and slaughtered by a desperate, aggressive foe who came to their island, Rekohu in 1835, themselves pursued by enemy tribes bent on their destruction.  After the carnage had ceased, the dead were eaten, the ultimate insult to a race who refused to lift its weapons to fight.  Those who were considered fit enough to be slaves were taken back to mainland New Zealand, prisoners of their contemptuous Maori conquerors.
Iraia, born to his slave mother some years later, has never known anything other than captivity and even less of familial affection after his mother was drowned when he was very small;  instead he grows up like ‘a stray puppy, a skulking dog’ on the farm of his captors in conditions little better than the farm animals.  Everyone, from Tu the patriarch, his skylarking sons and Whaea Audrey, Tu’s God-fearing bad-tempered sister, ignore him when they are not using him for farm labour;  they call him ‘boy’, refusing to use his given name.  Regardless, it would never occur to Iraia to run away, to leave his miserable existence, for there is one constant:  his hopeless love for the daughter of the family, Mere.  Beautiful, headstrong, fearless Mere, whose childhood devotion to Iraia, her sometime minder, has blossomed into something different – and Mere, always full of plans, hatches another:  it is time to fly the coop with Iraia!  She knows that her family would never consent to her union with a lowly slave, so they will both have to seek a life somewhere where her family would never think to look – and they do, arriving in 1870’s Wellington with a little money Mere stole from her father’s purse and nothing else except excitement at their audacity and success at evading her vengeful father, and the brimming optimism of first love.
One hundred year later, Tui, a descendant of Mere and Iraia and married to a Pakeha European has just given birth to fraternal twins, a boy and a girl, Bigsy and Lula:  remarkably, Lula is red-haired and pale;  Bigsy has caramel skin and dark hair – who would ever think they are related, much less twins?  Their progress through their childhood and eventual maturing to adults is intriguing, especially as they both are forced to face their ancestry and their place in the world when their mother dies and their father decides that she should be taken home to be buried on her ancestral land:  it’s the right thing to do, even though she had been estranged from her family for years.  It’s the right thing, the only thing, to do.
And there, on the land where Mere and Iraia forged unbreakable bonds, Bigsy and Lula learn secrets that their mother kept hidden all her life;  secrets that the family admitted with shame more than a hundred years later;  revelations that will draw them both back to Rekohu, now known as the Chatham Islands to learn the origins of their bloodstained family history.
Sadly, I felt that the story was let down by Bigsy and Lula.  As modern representatives of their singular forebears they were less than convincing,  but  Ms Makeriti succeeds brilliantly with the family ancestors:  they leapt from the page and spoke to me of birth and death and love and war with such eloquence that I won’t forget them, or the peace-loving Moriori from which her inspiration sprang.  This is a wonderful story that those two-dimensional twins fail to spoil.  Highly recommended.

Prince of Fools, by Mark Lawrence

Jalan Kendeth is a prince of Red March, a southern kingdom blessed with bountiful harvests and buxom wenches.  He is young, handsome and blessed with boundless energy – but not for anything constructive.  He freely admits to being irresponsible, (he is hugely in debt to a sadistic moneylender) feckless, (no woman is safe from his doubtful charms) and famously disinterested in the affairs and business of ruling his country – which is fortunate;  he is tenth in line to his grandmother the Red Queen’s throne and as such would never be considered for the crown.  Also, he is considered the runt of the litter of his family of older brothers, for despite his fine height and good build he is ‘The Little One’.  They dwarf him, every one.
Well, who cares?  Not him:  he’s quite happy to remain one step ahead of the moneylender (and he’s a damn fine runner!), and to worry about consequences for any of his actions after he has acted – until he becomes involved with a huge Norseman, a captive of his grandmother who has been freed because he gave her vital information about a huge and frightening army preparing to attack from the frozen Northern wastes of the Bitter Ice.  Through a dreadful twist of fate – and a ghastly spell concocted by a witch (truly!) – they are bound together by the good and bad strands of the spell and compelled to journey North to try to stop the advance of the Dead King and his ghastly army of corpses.  Snorri ver Snagason, the Norseman, is happy to begin the journey:  his wife and children are captives in the North and he means to rescue them.  Jalan, needless to say, feels exactly the opposite.  Heading purposely towards certain death is not on his agenda, but such is the power of the spell that he has no choice and begins the journey with a quaking heart and loud protestations.
Regardless of his fears, he and Snorri travel inexorably northwards, most of the time with little food and no money, depending more than once on ‘the kindness of strangers’, until they reach Ancrath, home of Jorg, Prince of Thorns, who is back in favour – however temporarily -  with his father, King Olidan.  Jalan makes much of his princely status while he can, until Olidan’s Queen tries to bribe him to kill Jorg, but Jalan has no stomach for such a task, especially when he sees the Prince of Thorns and is a victim of his ‘thousand yard stare’.  No:  it’s time he and the Norseman resumed their journey – fast!
Once again, we are off on a marvellous adventure through Mark Lawrence’s great fantasy of Europe after The Big Bang, the Explosion of a Thousand Suns,  the setting of  his superb ‘Prince of Thorns’ trilogy.  (See review below)
Jalan Kendeth’s story runs parallel to the action in the first trilogy so he is bound to cross paths again with the deadly Honorous Jorg Ancrath;  it will be fascinating to see if his and Norri’s travails have given him an injection of the courage he honestly acknowledges he lacks, but by the end of Book One our expectations are not high – instead, what is certain is that Mark Lawrence has produced once again a fantasy of the highest order, with characters that readers truly care about, and more action than you can shake a stick at.  There are Unborn, Undead and Unnaturals littering every chapter, not to mention witches, bitches and seers by the score:  what more could a dedicated fantasy reader ask for, except top quality writing and plotting.  Mark Lawrence does it all.  Highly recommended.

Prince of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

You read it here first:  What an adventure!  Mark Lawrence’s debut novel has all the requisite ingredients for the ideal fantasy – a wronged and vengeful hero, warring kingdoms, ghosts, necromancers, murders most foul, and a complete lack of honour, except amongst thieves.
At the tender age of nine, Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath was forced to witness the slaughter of his mother and younger brother William by Count Renar of the Highlands and his troops.  If he expected his father the king to avenge their dreadful murders, he is sorely disappointed;  instead, the king negotiates compensation in the shape of land and horses for his loss.  Seeds of hatred and revenge are sown in the fertile ground of Jorg’s grief and heartbreak:  he takes to the road and joins a band of mercenaries and outlaws, and because he no longer cares if he lives or dies, he becomes their leader through sheer recklessness and a bravado that is fearless and suicidal – oh, Jorg has problems, alright – he has already lived five lifetimes and he’s only fourteen!
Mark Lawrence has created a rip-roaring, no-holds-barred, heart-in-the-mouth pageturner in this first book, and in spite of the reader knowing they shouldn’t believe a word of it, they are totally sucked in, swept along with the clever plot and more action than a body should rightly have to endure – oh, it’s great stuff, and this is just the first book of a Trilogy.  ‘King of Thorns’ is next, and a fascinating question for the reader is to figure out exactly the timeline in which Mr Lawrence has set his stories:  a vastly altered central Europe might  be the setting, but who can be sure?  Everyone fights in armour with medieval weapons, but Jorg wears a wrist-watch!  (which doesn’t make an appearance till book two) – and he lets loose what seems suspiciously like a nuclear explosion halfway through book one.  I have come to the conclusion (I’m ashamed to say it took me a while) that Jorg’s story is set far into the future:  it’s possible that the world we knew has been destroyed for whatever terrible reason, and the regenerating human race hasn’t progressed beyond another Medieval Age in its attempts to survive.

Which all adds to this trilogy’s great appeal.  ‘ Prince of Thorns’ was a gripping read, but book two, ‘King of Thorns’ is even better.  Roll out book three!  Mark Lawrence isn’t just a good storyteller – he’s a great one.  Whatever I read next, this will be a hard act to follow.