Rosie’s #BookReview Team #RBRT #Thriller THE STRANGE BOOK OF JACOB BOYCE by @tom_gillespie

Today’s team review is from Olga, she blogs here

#RBRT Review Team

Olga has been reading The Strange Book Of Jacob Boyce by Tom Gillespie


I was sent an early paperback ARC copy, and I must say the cover is fantastic and the texture of the book is amazing as well. An experience in its own right.

This is the first novel by the author I’ve read, and I haven’t read any of his stories either, although I intend to check them out in the near future.

This is one of those books where the title truly suits the content. Yes, this is a strange book, a mighty strange book, and it is about Jacob Boyce. I don’t want to discuss the plot in detail (especially because I’m still trying to recover from its effect but also because I don’t want to spoil for everybody else), and I am not sure which genre it fits in. I started reading it and, at first, I thought it would be a book in the style of many recent novels, where there is a current mystery that somehow is linked to either an artwork, a book or another object that sends the main character traipsing along half the world chasing clues that in many cases are linked to the past (and History, in capital letters). The main character, the Jacob Boyce of the title, is a professor in Earth Sciences at Glasgow University who is researching his own theory, which he thinks will help predict earthquakes with more accuracy. So far, not so weird. But as we read, we discover that he has become obsessed by a painting, a baroque Spanish painting of uncertain origin (who the painter is, being the subject of some debate), which he somehow feels is connected to his theory. He becomes convinced that there is something peculiar about this painting, and it is to do with the application of a mathematical formula, which nowadays would be described as related to quantum physics. He becomes so obsessed by trying to find the links and the evidence to support his theory that he neglects everything else in his life: his job at the university, his marriage… And that results in his wife’s disappearance. He ends up in Spain, chasing both his wife and the painting, and there things get more and more bizarre. And I won’t say anything else about the plot. I’ve read some reviews that mention Vanilla Sky (I much rather the original Spanish movie, Abre los ojos [Open Your Eyes] by Alejandro  Amenábar), Sliding Doors, and Shutter Island. Yes, I quite agree, and, if I had to describe it, I’d say that some part of it felt almost surreal and hallucinatory, a bit like if I had found myself falling down the rabbit hole, while in some other parts, the sparse style and factual narrative made it seem perfectly grounded and realistic. An unsettling (even ‘uncanny’ at times) combination. Mindboggling.

If I had to talk about themes, I’d mention: obsession (I know many people who dedicate themselves to research can become sucked in, and suddenly everything starts looking or feeling as if it is related to the topic you are studying and you see connections everywhere), guilt, loss, grief, the permeable and tenuous frontier between sanity and madness, between dedication and obsession, between anxiety and paranoia… And also the tenuous separation between reality and imagination, between real life and our dreams and nightmares.

The main character, as mentioned, is Jacob. Although the book is narrated in the third person, we spend most of the novel inside of the protagonist’s head, we see things from his perspective, and he’s a fantastic example of the unreliable narrator. I tend to read mostly ebooks these days, and because this was a paper copy and I couldn’t read it as often as I would an ebook, it took me longer to read than would be the norm, and I confess I had forgotten the brief chapter (a kind of prologue) called ‘Inhale…’ which was from another character’s perspective. I later realised this was Sylvia, the mother of Jacob’s wife, Ella, and she comes back at the end as well (yes, the title of that chapter is ‘Exhale…’). Therefore, Sylvia’s point of view and story somehow frames the whole of the narrative, (a rather long and rarefied breath of air) but, as I said, most of the book is from Jacob’s point of view, and Jacob is the only character we get to know, although how well is subject to debate, but I won’t go into that either. He is not a dislikeable character, but like many protagonists who have become obsessed with a particular topic or search (think of Ahab in Moby Dick), their obsession can make them difficult to fully connect with. You either get entrapped in it and can’t help but follow them down that hole, or you wonder what the fuss is about. In this case, I found myself totally caught in it, and it’s one of those books where you end up having no idea what place is up or down, what is real or not, and don’t know if you can trust or believe in anything at all. There are other characters, but because we see them only (or mostly) through Jacob’s eyes, I didn’t feel as if I had a grasp of what they were like, and sometimes, due to the way the story is told, we get different versions of the same character, so, which one is (or might be) the real one, if any?

I’ve mentioned the third person point of view and the frame around the story as well. There are brief fragments in italics, which seem to be told from an omniscient point of view, between the main parts of the book, but these are short. The book is divided up into three parts. Part 1 and 3 take place in Glasgow, and part 2 in Spain, first in Barcelona and later in Madrid. The chronological order of events appears clear at first (although some of Jacob’s memories intrude into the narration), but… Well, I’ll let you read it to find out by yourselves. I’ve talked about the writer’s style before, and although I’ve marked a lot of the text, as I’m aware the book was due to go through more revisions and corrections before its release, I won’t share any specific quotes. There are parts of the text in Spanish, and I know some readers have wondered about that, worried that they might miss important aspects of the book, but let me tell you that, being Spanish, knowledge of Spanish is not required to understand the book. In my case, it kept sending me down wrong paths and making me question everything, so don’t worry. I’ve also seen people complaining about the use of mathematics and talks of formulae and proportions. Don’t worry about that either. I found the ideas challenging and fascinating, but it’s not necessary to be an expert on the subject to follow the book.

The ending manages to pull everything together, and it left me with the feeling (not uncommon with certain books and films, and I’m sure you know what I mean) that if I read it again, many things I found puzzling at the time would fit into the right place now, and I would be nodding my head all through the second read.

So, would I recommend it? If you enjoy being taken for a wild ride and falling into the depths of a complex mind trying to make sense of his life, then you should read it. This is not a standard mystery, and it has more in common with a psychological puzzle or even one of Freud’s case stories, where what is at stake is not what we might think at first. If you don’t mind experimenting and trying something new and are not looking for a straight and comforting read, I recommend you to dare to try this book. It won’t leave you indifferent.

Book description

A spiralling obsession. A missing wife. A terrifying secret. Will he find her before it’s too late?

When Dr Jacob Boyce’s wife goes missing, the police put it down to a simple marital dispute. Jacob, however, fears something darker. Following her trail to Spain, he becomes convinced that Ella’s disappearance is tied to a mysterious painting whose hidden geometric and numerical riddles he’s been obsessively trying to solve for months. Obscure, hallucinogenic clues, and bizarre, larger-than-life characters, guide an increasingly unhinged Jacob through a nightmarish Spanish landscape to an art forger’s studio in Madrid, where he comes face-to-face with a centuries-old horror, and the terrifying, mind-bending, truth about his wife.

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Rosie’s #Bookreview Team #RBRT @barbtaub reviews #Fantasy The Jack Of Ruin by @StephenMerlino

Today’s team review is from Barb, she blogs here

#RBRT Review Team

Barb has been reading The Jack Of Ruin by Stephen C Merlino


Epic fantasy is an ambitious genre to take on. After Lord of the Rings defined it, great series from the Belgariad to Harry Potter refined it, and Star Wars took it into space, it’s got to be a challenge to extend the tropes into new territory, especially for the middle book of a series. In my review of The Jack of Souls, Book 1 of the wonderful Unseen Moon series, I said that author Stephen Merlino checks off every one of the sacred tenets of epic fantasy consecrated by patron saint J.R.R. Tolkien, paying loving homage even as he turns the genre sideways and makes it his bitch.

The Jack of Ruin is basically the quest portion of the series. Harric, the young trickster, has secretly tapped into magic to save his friends from Sir Bannus, who seeks to destroy his queen and return the kingdom to old ways—which, among other things, would mean that fatherless people like Harric would become slaves again. Unfortunately, the young woman he loves, Caris, is magically compelled by a ring meant for the Queen. Although aware that Caris’ loathing for the ring now includes not only hatred of her magically-compelled lust for Harric, but for Harric himself, he is forced to remain by her side out of fear for what the ring will do if he leaves her. Meanwhile, their small band races ahead of the pursuing Sir Bannus in hopes of getting the alien ambassador Brolli back to his country in time to ratify the treaty he holds, as well as remove the ring’s power over Caris. But each member of their group hides their own secrets, and each holds the seed to their destruction.

  • World building
    ? Is there a “too good” category? Author Stephen Merlino has taken the genre’s standard medieval-with-magic framework and built several worlds within it, from the slightly-steampunk technology workarounds of Harric’s magic-averse home kingdom, to the starkly dangerous quest landscape, to the treehouse world of the chimp-like Kwendi. In fact, the meticulously drawn and consistent landscapes are so detailed that I found myself grateful for the gorgeous maps and illustrations scattered throughout the text.
  • Mystical hero from the past gathering a small band of Heroes, Simple Folk, and (probably) Lost Heir to the throne? The only card-carrying hero is Sir Willard, whose heroic past is only matched by his narrow-minded judgemental dismissal of anyone who uses magic. His courtly romantic decision to abandon his immortality in order to grow old and die with his love, the Lady Anna, is challenged and abandoned when he realizes magic is the only hope to accomplish their mission and save the kingdom. Even as Sir Willard regains the youth and strength associated with his returning immortality, the resultant connection with the mad god Krato threatens his already perilous grip on sanity. Of course, that doesn’t stop his loathing for Harric’s apparent brush with magic, even thought that’s actually what has saved them so far. Their suitably motley little band also includes Caris—Willard’s gifted warrior squire whose magical connection to horses often leaves her unable to function in human terms. Her fundamental loathing for magic not only exceeds Sir Willard’s hypocritical rejection of Harric, but equally hypocritically fails to recognize the magical elements of her own connection with horses.
  • Hobbit? Of course there’s Brolli—the magic-wielding chimp-like ambassador who provides assistance even as his own secrets reveal far more potentially sinister intentions.
  • Super cool sword and horse? Sir Willard’s sword Belle is still as sharp as ever, not to mention Molly—his immortal, bad-tempered, magic horse whose literal blood thirst is both a threat and a enticement for Caris.
  • Dark force from the dark past returning for (unspecified) dark purpose? The villainous Old Ones under Sir Bannus are really, really dark, with the most powerful and insane barely under the control of their deviously evil masters. But here’s the thing about all these old magic-using types—they’re all in Arkendia, a land whose god has given them three fundamental rules: “Let none of you worship or pray gods for favors, Nor bow down to high lords among you. Neither rely you on magic, and you shall be strong.” So—no gods, no high lords, and most especially no magic. Their favorite oath is “Gods leave me.” It’s kind of an uphill slog for the forces of evil. Then there are the ambiguously threatening Kwendi, and the creatures of the Unseen, from Harric’s wisecracking imp partner Fink—“Beneath a long, bulbous nose, a hedge of needlelike teeth stretched in a permanent grin. White, pupilless eyes gleamed like boils tight with fluid”—to Fink’s malevolent sisters headed by the whimsically-named Missy.
  • One ring to rule them all? There was going to be one, but the Queen got really annoyed at the implication that she needed a man, and then it accidentally got stuck on Caris’ hand, and… well the whole ring-thing is kind of a mess. Now Caris loathes Harric even as the ring magically compels her lust for him.
  • Politics? With the fate of Arkendia and her Queen hanging in the balance, with forces struggling to control the powers of the gods, and with those powers potentially capable of destroying the entire world, the stakes are definitely and suitably epic.

Does it sound like I like this book? Well, it’s too big and too complicated and (518 pages!) probably way too long. Actually, I love it. By the end of The Jack of Ruin, almost every character—those who survive anyway—faces their black moment, coming out if it with a greater sense of purpose if not, in many cases, any actual understanding of what’s happening to them. They still have their secrets, their self-imposed limitations, and their goals that define them. I can’t wait to see where that takes them in the last book of the series, and only hope we don’t have to wait too long to find out. Overall, even with the brilliant subversions of the epic fantasy genre, there are two things that I believe take The Jack of Ruin to an “I’d-give-more-stars-if-I-could” level. The first is the fact that every single character is an unreliable narrator. They all have secrets that provide motivation for their actions and decisions. And the second is that they are almost all three-dimensional beings whose surface appearance often masks enormous flaws and unexpected heroism. For example, the gigantic priest, Father Kogan, is an uneducated, drunken, close-minded buffoon—and also capable of epic feats of strength, bravery, and perception. At the same time, the ‘hero’, Sir Willard, is a narrow-minded elitist snob whose fast-returning immortality might provide the physical strength needed to face Sir Bannus, but gives him precious little grasp of the political subterfuges swirling around him.

Book description

Harric’s immortal enemy, Sir Bannus, lies defeated in the valley, his army buried under tons of mountain rubble—a rock fall that Harric brought down with the magic of the Unseen Moon. For now, the quest to deliver the Queen’s peace treaty to the mysterious Kwendi is safe.

But Sir Bannus rises from defeat with Harric’s name on his lips, vengeance in his fist, and a vow to capture the treaty-bearers and spark war to bring ruin upon the Queen. To Harric, death would be preferable, for if she falls, Sir Bannus or another of the Old Ones will reclaim the throne and cast women and bastards like Harric back into slavery.

Yet Harric’s companions condemn his use of trickery and magic to fight Sir Bannus—tools that saved them once before, and which he believes are as vital as swords for the Queen’s protection.

When treachery, discord, and death doom the quest, Harric must choose between the love and regard of his friends and his self-chosen destiny as Her Majesty’s Unseen protector.

It is a choice that will forever bind him to one…and bring ruin to the other.

About the author

Stephen Merlino lives in Seattle, WA, where he writes, plays and teaches English to teens. He lives with the world’s most desirable woman and two fabulous children, one cat, and three attack chickens.

Growing up in Seattle in constant rain drove Stephen indoors as a child, so he ended up reading a lot. When at the age of eleven he discovered J.R.R. Tolkein, Terry Brooks, and other fantasy writers, he dreamed of writing his own epic tales.

About the time a fifth reading of the Lord of the Rings no longer delivered the old magic, he attended the University of Washington and fell in love with Chaucer and Shakespeare and all things English. Sadly, the closest he got to England then was The Unicorn Pub on University Way, & that was run by a Scot named Angus. Nevertheless, he sampled Angus’s weird ales, and devoured Angus’s steak & kidney pie (with real offal!).

Stephen later backpacked Britain, where he discovered a magnificent retrospective of Henry VIII’s body development–from childhood to old age–captured in a dozen suits of armor. Each suit was a 3D snapshot in steel of his exact body shape in a specific moment in time. Stephen observed His Majesty was glorious when young, but as an old man the king corpulent and developed what was either elephantiasis or an unhealthy infatuation with his codpiece.

Stratford-upon-Avon inspired Stephen to return the following year to study Shakespeare at the U of Reading. He now teaches Shakespeare, and, by following The Bard’s example of plot thievery, built one of the subplots of A Midsummer Night’s Dreaminto The Jack of Souls. It’s one of his favorite parts of the story.

Stephen C. Merlino

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