Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Half a War by Joe Abercrombie

Description: Words are weapons.

Princess Skara has seen all she loved made blood and ashes. She is left with only words. But the right words can be as deadly as any blade. If she is to reclaim her birthright, she must conquer her fears and sharpen her wits to a lethal edge.

Only half a war is fought with swords.
The deeply cunning Father Yarvi has walked a long road from crippled slave to king’s minister. He has made allies of old foes and stitched together an uneasy peace. But now the ruthless Grandmother Wexen has raised the greatest army since the elves made war on God, and put Bright Yilling at its head—a man who worships only Death.

Sometimes one must fight evil with evil.
Some—like Thorn Bathu and the sword-bearer Raith—are born to fight, perhaps to die. Others—like Brand the smith and Koll the wood-carver—would rather stand in the light. But when Mother War spreads her irons wings, she may cast the whole Shattered Sea into darkness.

Half a War by Joe Abercrombie is the concluding volume in the Shattered Sea trilogy, and what a conclusion it is! This review will contain spoilers for the previous two volumes in the series if you haven’t read them yet, so consider yourself warned.

Joe Abercrombie has written a great series in the Shattered Sea trilogy, and while Half a War is a very good book, the series as a whole is even greater than the sum of its parts. While characters continue from book to book, the focus shifts to a new character in each book. Half a King introduces Yarvi, Half a World introduces Brand and Thorn Bathu (love her!), and Half a War introduces us to Princess Skara. Each of these characters makes a journey from the beginning of the book to the end, at least spiritually, but it is Yarvi who takes the greatest journey from the beginning of the series to the end.

Yarvi was always wise and “a deep cunning man”, yet the events in the first book removed whatever naivety remained and set him on a course of vengeance that isn’t complete until the final pages of the last book. The magnitude of his actions and their consequences hits him and you like a load of bricks. Even a deep cunning man cannot foresee every twist and turn of a complicated plan.

Half a War brings to fruition the conflict with Grandmother Wexen and the High King. Villain Bright Yilling is chillingly ruthless and frighteningly confident making him a fitting counterpoint for the coming of age Princess Skara, who balances her own cunning with a desire to do good and protect her people. The only character I really didn’t care for in this book, and the series for that matter, was Skara’s erstwhile love interest Raith. I never took him seriously and he never really seemed to have a purpose. His was the only character journey that I didn’t really buy.

Besides the main characters, a number of secondary characters are well written and interesting in their own rights. One of the things that sets this series apart is the sheer volume of interesting and complex characters. Not everyone makes it out alive and every victory comes with a cost. The characters at the end of the book are not the same as the ones at the beginning, and you feel their pain. Yarvi in particular has an objective in mind from the very beginning, but the ruthlessness and the sacrifice with which he pursues it isn’t fully revealed until the very end.

The world-building and plot of this book and this series are interesting, but it is all in service of the characters. And I absolutely loved these characters, warts and all. I read the first book in the series and listened to the audio version of the last two. If you want a real treat, listen to John Keating’s narration of these audiobooks. He does an amazing job bringing these characters to life. The character voices are distinctive and entertaining. One of the best jobs of narration I’ve listened to.

I highly recommend this book and this series. I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.

The Insider Threat by Brad Taylor

Description: The United States has anticipated and averted countless attacks from terrorist groups—thanks in large part to the extralegal counterterrorist unit known as the Taskforce. But in The Insider Threat, a much more insidious evil is about to shatter the false sense of safety surrounding civilized nations. While world powers combat ISIS on the battlefield, a different threat is set in motion by the group—one that can’t be defeated by an airstrike. Off the radar of every Western intelligence organization, able to penetrate America or any European state, they intend to commit an act of unimaginable barbarity. Only Pike Logan and the Taskforce stand in the way of an attack no one anticipates, a grand deception that will wreak unthinkable chaos and reverberate throughout the Western world.

The Insider Threat by Brad Taylor is the latest Pike Logan thriller and it doesn’t disappoint. So topical it almost anticipates events, The Insider Threat continues a great series and delivers on what readers have come to expect from Taylor.

Back in the good graces, tenuous as they are, of the counterterrorist unit “The Taskforce”, Pike Logan and his team are tasked with tracking down “The Lost Boys”. The Lost Boys are a group of Americans who have joined ISIS. When a taped beheading captures a reference to “The White House”, officials fear an ISIS attack on the U.S. Government or its interests using American-born terrorists.

Taylor is near the top of the field when it comes to action thrillers in the vein of Vince Flynn and others. The action is top notch and the plots have complexity and depth. Where many authors of this type of book fail is in developing complex characters. While Taylor is better than most he has some of the same flaws. Pike Logan, for all his virtue, decisiveness and self-sacrifice really sucks when it comes to his treatment of the women he works with. On the one hand, he is full of professed admiration for their skill and abilities, yet he doubts them at every turn. He is uncomfortable with how the other team members view his relationship with his subordinate Jennifer in a way that she is not. He continually fails to look at things from her perspective. There is a mutual affinity with ex-Mossad operative Shoshanna and yet he expresses confidence in her followed closely by mistrust. I’ll confess that part of this distaste for Pike’s attitude comes from the narration in the audio book. With two narrators, the narration of the Arabic characters was especially well done. The narration of Pike, combined with the writing, made him come across as sullen.

Although 8th in the series, I think most readers can jump in with this book and not really miss much. Despite some concerns with the character development, The Insider Threat is a first rate thriller with great action sequences. Where it really stands out is in its topical and complex plot. Highly recommended for previous fans as well as any fan of action thrillers.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.

Woman With A Secret by Sophie Hannah

Description: She's a wife.

She's a mother.

She isn't who you think she is.

Nicki Clements has secrets, just like anybody else—secrets she keeps from her children, from her husband, from everyone who knows her. Secrets she shares with only one person: A stranger she's never seen. A person whose voice she's never heard.

And then Nicki is arrested for murder. The murder of a man she doesn't know.

As a pair of husband-and-wife detectives investigate her every word, and as the media circle like sharks, all Nicki's secrets are laid bare—illusions and deceptions that she has kept up for years. And even the truth might not be enough to save her. For although Nicki isn't guilty of homicide, she's far from innocent. . . .

Sophie Hannah writes the most wonderful, broken, sometimes despicable characters that are compulsively readable. Woman With A Secret continues that tradition with another flawed character who has truth issues and the quirky detectives trying to figure out a twisty murder.

Hannah has the gift of making you keep turning the pages not just to solve the murder, but to find out what the characters are hiding. What I find unique about her is not her ability to write unlikeable characters, but her ability to fill her pages with nothing but unlikeable characters and still have you keep turning the pages to find out what happens to them.

Woman With a Secret starts when Nicki Clements conspicuously avoids going through a police checkpoint that happens to be in place in front of a murder scene where the words “HE IS NO LESS DEAD” have been left on the wall. Nicki’s involvement, if any, as well as the meaning behind the cryptic message propel the novel forward. Nicki’s habitual lying both hinders and helps the investigation, as the search for her secrets becomes intertwined with unraveling the murder.

Zailer and Waterhouse, the married police officers investigating the crime - only one officially on the case- are an interesting case study in themselves. Neither is particularly likeable, nor are their family and friends, but the dynamic seems to work. There is a certain amount of insight on each of their parts to unwind alibis and uncover motives, but largely it is dogged police work.

A large part of the novel is spent with Nicki and her life of complicated lies. Her secret life, as well as the life of the murder victim, make for a very interesting read. Her most closely guarded secret along with the identity of the murderer are ultimately not that exciting but the journey to them is. Sophie Hannah has a real gift for creating a true mystery. Less in a “whodunit” sense than in a “what the hell is going on here” way. The fun is in the way each revelation makes you question what is happening about a dozen times between the first page and the last. Highly recommended.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.