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Born Bad by Marnie Riches and The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. Book reviews

March 9, 2017

Born Bad

As one of the aims of the Strange Alliances blog is to introduce readers to great writing they might not normally read, I decided to review two books together from completely different genres. Yet Born Bad and The Collapsing Empire are examples of how it is possible for a reader to consider moving between genres because they share many key features which add up to some really entertaining reading.

Born Bad by Marnie Riches is a crime novel, with the crime experienced from the criminal’s perspective rather than that of the police, and is set in Manchester. The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi is a science fiction novel, of the space opera sub-genre (if you want to be pedantic), and set over a very large tract of space with individual planets linked by a type of galactic high speed conveyer belt which radically shortens journeys.

Despite what appear to be some major differences of location, vehicles and scope, the principles involved in the skulduggery (of which there is plenty) are pretty much the same. Both books launch out of the starting gate with terrific style. They also have a great cast of memorable protagonists (due to really clever character development), and equally convoluted plots, each of which reach interesting ‘read on’ conclusions.

These are two authors I had heard a great deal about, but had never read before. That is a deficiency I will now be putting right.

Born Bad by Marnie Riches

Manchester’s criminal underworld is rocked when gang leader Paddy O’Brien is stabbed in his brother’s nightclub. There is soon a sense that the carefully managed gang boundaries are about to be breached in a turf war, unless someone manages to negotiate a mutually acceptable agreement. But, given the old adage “honour among thieves” does not apply, this is not going to be straightforward.

Born Bad begins with a fantastic description of the female lead character Sheila O’Brien, long suffering wife of Paddy. There is a terrific juxtaposition between the sophistication of her car, the hugely expensive designer footwear and the unwieldly leather case full of firearms which gradually strips her of her dignity as the effort of lugging it into the house ruins her immaculate appearance and poise.

There is great humour in this pantomime, but there is also pathos because this could be interpreted as a metaphor for her marriage. Marnie Riches makes good use of these vignettes amongst the believable dialogue to provide the reader with a ‘surround sound’ sense of being there.

Born Bad is a book so riddled with devious and nasty people Tywin Lannister would have trouble finding elbow room. The unpleasantness is very visceral, as is the language, so the book is not for the faint-hearted. What really adds layers to the storytelling is that none of the key players at the top of the food chain can rest on their laurels, because they have to constantly watch their backs. But this sense of discomfort is felt by everyone from the top to the bottom, and it is clear you do not want to be at the bottom of the pile.

Those at the top appear to have the most to lose in terms of power and wealth, particularly given that they must deal with an ever-present force as worrying as being wiped out by their criminal colleagues; the persistent representative of the H M Revenue and Customs. You almost begin to feel sympathy for these criminals, until you realise that those at the bottom have lost any scrap of dignity and at some point will lose their lives, after which they are tossed away like a used rag.

You certainly need to keep notes as you go along because you are really never quite sure what scheme has been cooked up or when it is going to come to fruition.

In other words this is a book that keeps you hanging on chapter by chapter just to see what happens next.

collapsing empire

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

In a galaxy far, far away (or at least an empire spread over a very large tract of space), an event is about to happen which will threaten the fragile hold humans have over this section of the universe.

The communities, only one of which is on a planet with a breathable atmosphere, are kept under control because of their dependency on one another. Their link is through ‘The Flow’ which allows rapid space travel. But ‘The Flow’ is about to make a radical shift, threatening to isolate each world. It is an event which spells disaster for what is left of human-kind, and signals the collapse of a powerful empire.

The Collapsing Empire begins as if someone is casually describing the events unfolding on the beleaguered starship Tell Me Another One (all the starships are named after songs) to an audience keen for a thrilling tale. The narrating voice reads like a running commentary delivered with the driest wit and is very dynamic.

The banter which sparks between the captain and her chief mutineer, at the beginning of The Collapsing Empire is priceless. John Scalzi just knows how to craft some terrific characters, the bad girls of which absolutely have you rooting for them. Sometimes it is hard to tell who the bad guys or girls are, because this is a movable feast depending on the situation.

The story is the most fantastic romp, complete with pirates, scoundrels, and a very reluctant empress who is a little cannier than people give her credit for.

There is some technobabble, but the story is written in a way that makes it highly accessible to new readers because Scalzi doesn’t forget to fill it with interesting people, interacting with each other like normal people do, only with tons of panache. The dialogue is also a really good way of adding to the world building.

Every gender gets a fair hearing in this novel, although the women definitely come out on top and not just metaphorically given one noble lady’s voracious sexual appetite.

This is why The Collapsing Empire, is the type of book someone who would not normally consider reading scifi should give a go.

Born Bad was courtesy of Avon Books and The Collapsing Empire by Pan Macmillan, both courtesy of NetGalley

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