Stone and a Hard Place, R L King

Stone and a Hard Place, R L King

Stone and a Hard Place (The Alastair Stone Chronicles Book 1)

Stone and a Hard Place is a story of magic, academia, and a demon for good measure. Alastair Stone has a quiet job teaching Occult Studies, to classes mostly composed of would-be horror authors. Unlike his colleagues, Alastair actually knows what he’s talking about; he’s a mage. It’s a fact he goes to some lengths to keep hidden, and he’s got pretty good at his cover. However, a late-night call from an old friend lands him with something he’d never seriously contemplated having: an apprentice. After that, it’s only a matter of time until Alastair finds himself facing personal and demonical upheaval in his quiet life – and the odds aren’t stacked in his favour.

R L King’s writing offers memorable characters with their own goals, histories and conflicts, and a setting straight out of urban legend, all spiced with touches of well-timed humour. The tension develops very neatly, with the layer of subterfuge and deceit adding depth to the main plot, and villains and victims who come to vibrant life in the pages. I found Stone and a Hard Place had everything a good urban fantasy needs, including a really credible magic system. The writing style is excellent, making it very easy to lose yourself in the story. I’ll definitely be making my way through the rest of this series.

Stolen Ink, Holly Evans

Stolen Ink, Holly Evans

Stolen Ink (Ink Born Book 1)

Dacian’s a tattoo magician. He’s got a business that pays well enough to let him put his feet up and keep the door closed every so often if he wants to, and a good business partner. Going unnoticed is exactly what he likes best. Unfortunately, it looks as if the gods aren’t content any more with merely raining on him; his tattoos are collecting strays, and someone else is apparently collecting other peoples’ tattoos. The words ‘ink magician’ are flying around a lot more than Dacian’s happy with, but when the tattoo thief strikes close to home, any choice Dacian can live with is going to get him noticed…

The first thing you’re going to notice about Stolen Ink is its strong, unique, cynical voice, and that it’s laugh-out-loud funny in places. The second thing, probably, will be that it’s a couple of hours later than you expected. Author Holly Evans has created a deeply-detailed fantasy world with a rich variety of species and magic types loose in it, and all the conflict points you could want to spark a story. The characters are memorably individual, and, impressively, the author manages to include companion animal spirits without in any way coming off as a Philip Pullman impression. This book truly puts the ‘fantasy’ in urban fantasy – highly enjoyable.

Anchor Leg, Jack Croxall

Anchor Leg, Jack Croxall

Anchor Leg

When the overcrowding forced Earth to seek alternatives to house its population, stations were founded as far out as Saturn, and spaceships travel the vast distances between planets, serving as transport, supply, research, and mining vessels. Seren Temples is a security apprentice on the Charybdis, an orphan from Earth among the primarily system-born crew, trying to escape her past on Earth and make herself a future – any future. However, when an SOS signal disrupts their planned course, Seren and her security team find themselves involved in events that could destabilise the delicate balance of the whole solar system.

Jack Croxall’s Anchor Leg is a fantastic sci-fi novel, with a fast-paced plot, twisty intrigue, and incredibly well-developed characters. While I’m a self-confessed cynic, I also found the romance in this plot was nicely handled, neither distracting nor detracting from the primary plot, but actually supporting the action and contributing to character development. That’s a challenging achievement for many books, and one I admire. The exposition also managed to maintain a perfect balance between keeping the reader informed enough to understand the undercurrents and managing to completely avoid the fatal data dump. This book was an extraordinarily satisfying read on pretty much every level, and I have every intention of going to camp out on this author’s page to do my best Oliver Twist impression. An outstanding achievement.

I Belong to the Earth, J A Ironside

I Belong to the Earth, J A Ironside

I Belong to the Earth: Unveiled, Book 1

A car smash was the turning point for all three sisters, and especially Emlynn, traumatised and with a head injury that apparently kick-started her on-again-off-again ability to perceive the dead. Isolated, and struggling with her own problems, there’s no-one Emlynn can tell about the cold patch on the stairs, or the figures she sees watching their house, or the sense of sheer menace she’s getting off her oldest sister’s new boyfriend. Each of the sisters has their role to play, and it seems the harder Emlynn tries to fight, the more ground she loses.

I Belong to the Earth is a complex story with a depth and richness far beyond most of the YA genre I’ve read. It’s welcomely free of stereotypes and miraculous solutions, and the fantasy elements are solidly thought-out and woven into the plot with a realism that chills. Author J. A. Ironside writes the side-effects of trauma with an understanding that adds dimensions to Emlynn’s struggle. With excellent pacing and incredibly convincing characterisation, this book totally earnt its five stars. I read it in a couple of sittings, and actually read all the teasers at the end looking for more (I never do that). I strongly recommend this read – one of the best fantasy books I’ve come across this year.

Salt in the Water, S Cushaway and J Ray

Salt in the Water, S Cushaway and J Ray

Salt in the Water

In a setting with strong overtones of Mad Max, Salt in the Water is the kind of gritty, kick-ass sci-fi dystopia that punches you in the teeth to get your attention.

The political balance of the small enclaves was complex, nasty, and well-thought-out, and the results weren’t ever saved at the last moment by a deus ex machina moment. In addition, the contrast between the high-tech weapons so very rarely available against the predominance of knives, fists, and rocks was a nice accent to the setting.

While opting for a wide range of character viewpoints can be a recipe for disaster in terms of reader confusion and choppiness in the read, I found that authors J. Ray and S. Cushaway did a pretty good job of managing their plot through the various viewpoints. While to some extent the sympathy I built with each character was limited by the amount of time I spent with them, the individual characters carrying the viewpoint were, without exception, well-developed and strongly individual across the range of species – twisty, traumatised, and dark.

I did find that the background to the Toros shards could have used a bit more explanation. What comes through the story: These artifacts stud the landscape; they caused a disaster; they still do bad things – but that was really about the extent of the information. As the book is, pretty clearly, the preparation for a sequel, that may have been deliberate, but as a reader, it left me with a feeling that I’d arrived halfway through an important story.

Overall, this book definitely earnt its five stars, and I’m very stingy with those. I’m a sucker for intelligent anti-heroes and independent loners, not to mention solid writing skills and a realistic plot, and this book provided me with plenty of all the above. I’d strongly recommend this read.

Reviewed for Knockin’ Books Blog.