Bastard Rebellion

3:39 PM 24 JUNE 2020

One of the benefits of building a world unfamiliar to the reader and characters that can live for hundreds of years, is the size of canvas, on which the author can construct his story. Certainly, in ‘Shadowless’, Randall McNally has developed a book exploiting those epic proportions, ranging across the ‘Northern Realms’, with a large cast of characters that perhaps befits such an ambitious undertaking. The fact that this is also a debut novel merely emphasises the congratulations due to the author, for such an absorbing read.

Amid echoes of Greek and Roman mythology, the Northern Realms is a world that cultivates curiosity and discomfort, wonder and horror in equal measure. The book also rather morphs into a novel, as the first half comprises a series of chapters, which read almost like short stories, or vignettes, introducing the respective ‘heroes’, with their inherited power and explaining how their differing local environments are formulated.

The malevolent ‘villains’ in the region are undoubtedly the cohort of powerful gods, who have survived a civil war among themselves, but in the process killed all of the goddesses. As a consequence, this exclusively macho group, using their ability to assume any form, satisfy their carnal desires among mortal women, the resulting offspring being born with supernatural traits, but without shadows. The ‘shadowless’ are thus born with innate advantage and yet are destined to be marked out and damned, neither mortal, nor god. The power bequeathed by their respective fathers may grow, if they can survive, but it can also be ‘harvested’ by the relevant god, in a cynical cull of their illegitimate children. Moreover, the Northern Realms are in the thrall of temples and mortal worshippers, who seek to enthusiastically appease the gods, by deploying a militia of ‘Shadow Watchers’, to identify and sacrifice the shadowless. Survival depends often on staying hidden from public view, in aristocratic isolation, forest, dungeon, or underground community. Only the mysterious Brother Amrodan, priest within a sole religious order committed to finding and helping the shadowless, appears to be on their side. Moreover, Amrodan is the lynchpin, mapping the whereabouts of the disparate individuals over centuries and devising the plan by which the gods might eventually be challenged. For me, he was a fleeting reminder of Nick Fury, meticulously assembling the ‘Avengers’, only Amrodan’s use of the dark arts involved a primeval pool and his kickass firepower came in the shape of a black dragon!

In a sense, the fact that these fascinating shadowless individuals seemed to struggle to gel as a group was hardly surprising. However, as prophesied, within the group is an especially powerful ‘shadowmancer’ who didn’t really fulfil his potential in this first outing. Coming up against a 25 feet tall monster with destruction on his mind may test the mettle of any leader, but it has left me with the impression that this book is the foundation of an ongoing story, the opening battle in a war, which I hope the author will continue. Interesting as they are, I did wonder at the sheer number of characters and the juggling required to keep them all in play, but if this does indeed culminate in further volumes, then returning to the canvas analogy, the author has acres of material to work with. Certainly the polish in some of those discrete early chapters bore the hallmarks of a talented wordsmith and I hope to return for Mr McNally’s next instalment soon. Incidentally, whilst the reader should rarely judge a book by its cover, the cover art, which did well in an online competition, on this occasion, is rather a good guide to the quality within.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Last, My First, in a Lengthy Series

10:27 AM 25 AUGUST 2019

Hieronymus Bosch (fifteenth century Dutch artist) is also a great name for a detective with the San Fernando police department and yet I come late to the Bosch phenomenon. Twenty one novels (so far) in the series by Michael Connelly and apparently one of the most watched original TV series on Amazon Prime (in its third season), somehow it had not penetrated the ‘Burfo-bubble’. So, I am indebted to an enlightened friend who loaned me his copy of “Two Kinds of Truth” (Intriguingly the latest in the series, published in 2017), as a useful start point. It proved a good call. Part murder mystery, part thriller, part courtroom drama, the novel galloped along like a Grisham/Baldacci mash-up. Still, Michael Connelly is clearly a skilled storyteller, with an eye for character that makes the eponymous ‘Harry’ Bosch an interesting, if somewhat enigmatic hero.


On this occasion Bosch straddles two investigations. A double homicide at a pharmacy will flare outwards from being local murders, to a symptom of wider organized crime and a challenge to the integrity of a historic case, which saw the detective allegedly consign an innocent man to fifteen years on death row. Thus, jeopardy to life and reputation rains down on Bosch, who must protect both victims and himself from the drenching impact of powerful malign forces.


A former police reporter for the Los Angeles Times, the author utilizes a knowledge of criminal justice process and a journalistic nose for the sensational, to repeatedly hook the reader. But, while the dual plot is exciting and moves along at a breathless pace, it also provides some useful space to ponder Bosch the man and his selfless dedication to a very personal cause. I thoroughly enjoyed this very American novel. However, in what is a fairly crowded genre, for me, it is the central character that makes it stand apart. That I am minded to go back to the beginning of the book series is perhaps testament to some fine writing and my friend’s impeccable taste.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Three’s a charm…

9:20 PM 10 NOVEMBER 2018

A third novel featuring detective Amos Decker and the FBI team, of which he is a member, is on the up. After their recent success (see “The Last Mile”), Special Agent Bogart’s people are on the move to Washington DC, to bring their skills to bear on some criminal action in the capital. Decker does not welcome the disruption. But, when a man walking in front of him by the Hoover Building shoots an apparently random woman and then himself, these are not the kind of events Decker can shrug off. Cue a convoluted investigation with more twists and turns than an Olympic diver!


In common with the best thriller writers, Baldacci deftly maintains an almost breathless pace at times. However, the presence of familiar characters from the earlier novels in the trilogy and their deepening relationships with the key protagonist are also interesting.
Decker remains a fascinating anti-hero and something of an enigma. The value of his prodigious memory (legacy of a head injury sustained in his lone NFL appearance) is well understood by his colleagues, but increasingly they also grasp the significant cost to Decker’s social functioning. Despite their efforts, at times, Decker feels like a stranger in his own body, unable to revert to the personality that he was, nor resist dwelling on the devastating loss of his family (see “Memory Man”). Yet, his formidable physical and mental presence are used to good effect in this story, as governmental inter-agency pressures and international intrigues simmer, threatening to boil over into lethal destruction at every turn.


Though compelling, Decker’s insatiable, naive drive to find ‘the truth’ seems bound to be manipulated and in this book Alex Jamison (former journalist) is more clearly seen as his self-appointed protector. Yet, the reader knows Decker is incapable of reciprocating her devotion, at least in any romantic sense.


Whilst changing the team’s location has arguably provided the author with a broader canvas, the plot-line in “The Fix” is a more traditional ‘whodunit’ and consequently felt ‘narrower’ and more predictable than the preceding novels. That said, Baldacci has left plenty of scope to develop the character of Amos Decker and his colleagues further. There are also enough loose ends remaining should the author be minded to move beyond the trilogy, which seems the preferred ‘boxset’ of choice currently. All three books weigh in at around six hundred pages, but for me, this final(?) installment is possibly the lightest of the bunch. Worth a read, but lacking the novelty and impact of books one and two.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Paltry Topic for the Legal Eagle?

10:14 AM 28 FEBRUARY 2018

No one can refute the lasting success of John Grisham as a storyteller. As the author of thirty one novels and sales in the many millions, he enjoys an ardent following of readers, besotted by the fast-moving plotlines, most often exposing some of the fascinating nooks and crannies of the US criminal justice system (though my personal favourite is unrelated to the law – “A Painted House”). Rarely retracing his steps, one must admire too, the author’s originality as well as professional longevity.


As Grisham divulges in the ‘author’s note’, the kernel of this latest book grew from a magazine article by Paul Campos lamenting “The Law School Scam”. A system that apparently preys on the aspirations of wannabe student lawyers, lured by the prospect of a well-paid career, which will never be realised by the majority, yet burden the recipients with mountainous debts, is potentially scandalous and ripe for the Grisham spotlight.
Cue four student friends approaching their final semester at the sub-prime ‘Foggy Bottom Law School’. Each is tending a debt of around $200K and has a ‘handler’ keen to establish a repayment plan. As realisation hits that job prospects are poor and only 50% are predicted to even pass the bar exam, the bleak future calls for radical measures. The friends identify that they have been scammed by the system and wealthy vested interests and embark on a naïve, but bold, scam of their own.


There is something endearing about the youngsters blundering around in an environment, until recently, a hypothetical arena of law. Surrounded by the more hardened beasts of the jungle, however, they have the audacity of youth and an inventiveness born of necessity. For the reader, there is also something enjoyable about the clear underdog blowing a metaphorical raspberry in the face of the establishment. Perhaps it panders to romantic notions of Robin Hood-esque wealth redistribution, or the victim turning the tables on the ‘real’ criminals, but it is a compelling cocktail and one that the author exploits to the full.


Grisham is a master of the suspenseful, thrilling story and the pace and weave of the unfolding strands is beguiling. I don’t think this book is as dramatic as a number of the author’s other novels. Nor are the relationships as convincing. The ending also reminded me of the movie, “Trading Places”. Yet, for all that, it was a compelling read that I’ve happily skipped through in ‘holiday-read’ fashion.


It is hard not to have a sneaking regard for life’s rebels and though the central characters are hardly white-collar musketeers, their ‘all for one and one for all’ approach has the reader willing them to ‘beat’ the system. For Mr Grisham, another book and another bestseller no doubt, albeit not his best.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Pullman Sprinkles Some More Magic Dust!

9:41 PM 3 FEBRUARY 2018

When it’s been more than 20 years since the publication of an awesomely successful trilogy, there must be a temptation to just leave it alone. Notwithstanding the frenzied publicity, there’s an attendant apprehension for the (now older) fans that a savoured memory might be about to be irreparably tarnished. Of course, my bluff was called by the Christmas gift of a copy of Phillip Pullman’s prequel to the original “His Dark Materials” (my family know me so well). Though, to be fair, I did delay my gratification until January and the last remnants of festive chocolate, before gorging myself in sumptuous sessions of novel gluttony. 546 pages swept past with all the force of the flood that has beset Pullman’s parallel Oxford. And, amid the carnage, an unlikely pair of guardians for Lord Asriel’s baby daughter – Lyra Belacqua.


Still, it was reassuring to discover the author’s story-telling has not dimmed at all in the intervening years and this latest adventure unfolds at a gloriously break-neck pace. All the familiar components are present, the fascinating animal dæmons accompanying each human, like an external emotional core; the alethiometer – an instrument of almost mystical qualities, powered by ‘dust’; and the ongoing struggle between the malevolent Magisterium (church) and scientific schools of thought. Throw in a giant, a witch and a fairy and what’s not to like?!


What I do like is the seamless way Pullman has laid the foundations of the later books here and even offered some deeper explanation for why, in due course, Lyra will find herself the subject of ‘scholastic sanctuary’ at Jordan College. We haven’t learnt much more yet about the relationship between her parents, Asriel and the enigmatic Mrs Coulter, but their absence from the life of their daughter is curious, especially since the baby’s safety is instead reliant on eleven year-old Malcolm Polstead and fifteen year-old pub washer-upper, Alice. But, what great heroes they turn out to be!

For younger readers there’s surely a certain satisfaction in seeing these main characters outwit their elders, however, that’s not to suggest the book cannot be appreciated by an adult readership. Indeed the brutality of some scenes and the protagonist’s struggle with their part in the violence suggests that this is more than simply a tale of derring do. In any event, Pullman’s compelling storyline that pits good versus evil fizzes along and readers (young and old), can expect to be rooting for the good guys and hoping the cruel wrong’un with the three-legged hyena for a dæmon, gets his comeuppance!

Using Malcolm’s canoe (the ‘Belle Sauvage’), the youngsters need to navigate the flooded Thames valley and get Lyra to safety in London, traversing the natural barriers and avoiding the chasing Magisterium agents, who have other designs on the child of prophecy. For me ‘His Dark Materials’ set the bar very high, but I’m delighted to report that  ‘The Book of Dust’ is a magnificent romp that skilfully adds to the existing classic trilogy and has left this reader wanting more. What more could I ask for….the next two books in the new series perhaps (family take note)?

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.