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“The Fade” by Chris Wooding


I’ve enjoyed two of Chris Wooding’s series, the Firely-goes-Steampunk adventures in the Tales of the Ketty Jay series and the Japanese-themed epic fantasy series “The Braided Path”. In between those two series he also wrote a standalone fantasy novel set in a world of underground caverns where civilisations are engaged in a long war from supremacy far beneath a surface that is so hostile life can barely survive there.

The novel starts literally in the middle of the story as Orna, a highly skilled assassin and warrior who is a ‘Cadre’, an indentured servant working for a wealthy merchant family, is caught up in a disastrous battle that leaves her husband and fellow Cadre dead and her captured by the enemy. The rest of the books moves both forward and backwards from this first chapter, alternate chapters either moving forward in time or moving back through a series of flashbacks showing key moments in Orna’s past life. In the first plotline Orna first has to survive (which presents both physical and mental challenges) and then escape from prison inside an enemy fortress, knowing that even if she does she would then face a long and arduous journey home through dangerous territory. Despite the problems and dangers she is determined to return, both to see her son, who joined the army against her wishes, and to investigate whether someone on her side has betrayed her nation to the enemy. The second plotline covers her entire life from an idyllic childhood through slavery, war and her career as a professional killer. Along the way incidents from her past turn out to have relevance for things happening in the present day and the flashbacks do a good job of gradually revealing Orna’s character with mysteries introduced early in the book eventually being explained.

Although I think the flashbacks do a good job of providing characterisation and allowing for more detailed world-building, I think they do suffer slightly from often not being quite as compelling as the present-day story. Orna’s escape from the prison is particularly tense, she can’t escape alone so is forced to ally with some of the other prisoners and events show both sides of her character as she is alternately compassionate and ruthless. I think this part of the book also has the best supporting characters since Orna’s fellow inmates are more interesting than her late husband or her son who feature heavily in the flashbacks. The story is narrated by her, which I think works well and it does allow for some subtle misdirection as Orna’s misreading of some of the other characters becomes significant in the plot. The book does a good job of making her likeable despite some of the horrible she has done and ends up doing since it does a good job of showing how she became the person she is.

The world-building is fascinating, it is perhaps arguable whether the plot really needed to be set in an underground world but it does make for a dramatic and memorable backdrop for the events in the story. Particularly good is the characters’ instinctive fear of the surface, justified by one tense sequence as Orna is forced to travel through the unforgiving landscape where being out in full sunlight would be a fatal mistake. Although there is a fair amount of detail in the world-building it also does a good job of suggesting that there is a lot that we haven’t seen, one example is the mentions of various non-human races who mostly play little role in the story. While the story itself is adequately concluded in one book without any obvious need for a sequel, it would be interesting to read another book further exploring the world even if it wasn’t directly connected to The Fade.

In terms of writing it is perhaps closer in tone to Wooding’s Braided Path series rather than the more escapist Ketty Jay series. While the writing in the Braided Path books could be a bit uneven at times I think The Fade is generally better-written than Wooding’s earlier series.

It isn’t the modern fashion for fantasy novels to introduce a complex and intriguing world and tell an entire story in a standalone novel of only 300-odd pages, but I think The Fade does it very well.

Rating : 8 / 10


“Broken Homes” by Ben Aaronovitch


I enjoyed reading the first three books in Ben Aaronovitch’s “Peter Grant” series, there’s something addictive about them and they were all great fun to read, even if the two sequels weren’t quite as good as the original “Rivers of London”. The fourth book in what looks to be a long running series continues that trend, it is another entertaining read although again it is falls slightly short of being as good as it perhaps could have been.

I thought the book took a while to build up momentum. The early stages of the book consist of a series of loosely-linked investigations into various crimes and mysterious happenings, all with the ultimate aim of tracking down the series’ main antagonist, the sorcerer they know only as the Faceless Man. Periodically these investigations are interrupted by subplots revisiting some of the plotlines introduced in previous books such as Peter providing police cover for a magical ceremony held by the river spirits of London or the Folly’s caretaker Molly behaving mysteriously. I do like the hints of happenings in the wider magical world but it doesn’t help with the pacing of the novel and arguably not enough happens in these subplots to really justify their existence in this book. Another small problem is that although it’s nice to focus on the Faceless Man storyline again, the various crimes investigated in the first part of the book aren’t all that interesting in their own right.

The pace picks up as the book moves past its halfway point when Peter and Lesley go undercover in Skygarden, an unloved post-war housing estate which seems to be the focus of the Faceless Man’s plotting. As the book progresses the various plotlines and investigations start to come together leading to possibly the best finale in the series so far. Two particular highlights of the story are Peter’s boss Nightingale getting a chance to show more of his powers than he has in previous books and an intriguing final plot twist which is surprising but also makes a lot of sense given earlier events. Although the series as a whole is a relatively light read it does manage the occasional shocking moment and there a couple of moments like that in this book. The ending does make me keen to read the next book in the series, although it remains to be seen whether it will focus much on the overall story arc or whether it will be more of a standalone story like “Whispers Underground”, the previous book in the series.

The characterisation continues to be one of the highlights of the series and Peter continues to be a compelling narrator of the story. His occasional tendency for his narration to get sidetracked into discussing things that interest him is charming and it works well in this case as his interest in architecture has a lot of relevance to the plot when he investigates the mysterious legacy of the architect who designed Skygarden. The supporting cast continues to be good, with Lesley in particular getting some good characterisation in this book, although it’s slightly frustrating that we don’t learn much more about Nightingale, who is possibly the most interesting character in the series.

The copy of the book I read had a bonus short story with Peter and colleagues investigating a haunted bookstore. It’s a slight but mildly amusing story, although its placement is a bit disconcerting, since it is at the end of the book despite clearly taking place before the events in Broken Homes.

Overall, Broken Homes is another entertaining novel which takes a while to get going but once it does it delivers one of the best stories in the series so far.

Rating : 8 / 10