Monday, 29 July 2013

Quoth the Scotsman | Charlie Human on The Illusion of Maturity

Brace yourself for the most disgusting thing I've ever uttered in the four years I've been blogging on The Speculative Scotsman.

Are you ready?

Next year, I'm turning 30.

Horror of horrors, huh? Well, it seems as much to me at least.

If teaching children has taught me one thing, it's that anyone over 18 is, and I quote, "old." Thing of it is, I don't feel a great deal different than I did a decade ago—excepting the eye strain and the back pain. I'm the same soul, but my body betrays me. The bastard!


On that note, a quote that touches on the same subject. It's from Charlie Human's debut, Apocalypse Now Now:
"You know David Copperfield the illusionist, right? He did this one trick where he walked through the Great Wall of China. They made a huge thing of it, attached heart rate monitors to him, in case he got 'stuck' inside the stone. He walked through and the wall went all stretchy, but the whole time you know it's all crap, it's just an illusion that you want to believe is real." 
At this stage I have no idea where Ronin is going with this but I decide just to go with it. I nod. 
"Well, that's what becoming an adult is like," Ronin continues. "You think there's this great dividing line between child and adult, you're brought up believing that you're gonna do this trick, right, walk through the wall between the two, become an adult. But you get to the other side and you realise it's just an illusion, there was no wall, just some smoke and mirrors. There is no line between old and young, the only things that mark your passing are the things that go wrong—the car accidents, cancers and heart attacks." 
That's Ronin's idea of a motivational speech and strangely, in a way, it works. After all, if I'm going to die, it's good to know that most of what I'm going to be missing out on is mortgages, waiting in traffic and misunderstanding my wife. Sure, hopefully there'd also be threesomes in hot tubs, hoverboards and the singularity, by weighed against the absolute certainty of the mundane nature of real life it all somehow looks less attractive. (pp.252-253)
Apocalypse Now Now will be published by Century Press in the UK in early August. I'll be posting my review of it soon. In the interim, suffice it to say I'm a fan, man!

Friday, 26 July 2013

Book Review | Winter Damage by Natasha Carthew



The moor in winter is no place for a girl travelling alone. It's cold out there. There's snow, but it's the wind that grabs hold of your heart and freezes it.

Just before Christmas, Ennor Carne sets out on a quest to find her missing mother. The home she leaves is a broken-down trailer, with her sick dad and her little brother, and a few skinny cows that's left of what was once a family farm. She takes warm clothes, what food she can find, a map and a gun — but nothing, nothing can prepare her for what lies ahead.

Ennor is just fourteen years old. She thinks she knows where she's going and what she's looking for. She doesn't know anything.

***


As abhorrent as the thought is—of billions dead and the world wasted, whether by natural disaster or man-made calamity—it's fair to say that folks today take a certain pleasure in positing the apocalypse.

The appeal is apparent if we begin by admitting that the lot of modern life is lacking; that we are all dissatisfied with ourselves in one way or another. The end of everything, then, represents a chance to change. To break with the people we have been in the past, and be... better, I guess. So the world goes to war and we wonder: will we suddenly discover hidden depths, reserves of inner strength? The polar ice caps melt and overnight we could be leaders—heroes, even!

Fantasising about the apocalypse is a peculiar pastime, perhaps, but not pointless. At the very least, it begs an arresting theoretical question: how would we cope with the end of world as we know it?

Winter Damage's protagonist Ennor Carne counts.

A fourteen year-old farmer's daughter whose dad has seen better days, and whose autistic brother Trip requires round-the-clock care, Ennor takes "comfort in the counting of things." (p.239) To count is of course to take control in some small way, to impose order upon chaos, and there's been a lot of that latter in her life lately.
Since the last outbreak of foot-and-mouth things had turned worse from the top of the country to the bottom. Ennor didn't remember it all so well. She was only seven at the time and losing the prize cattle was the least of their problems once they had lost the farmhouse and the land and her dad went half mad with the misery and then the drugs. (p.7)
Squirrelled away in the wilderness, the Carne family have managed to make ends meet in the seven years since, but now the money's run out, and the council are threatening to take the kids into care while the country descends into a modern-day dark age.

Nearing the end of her teenage tether, Ennor remembers her mother. Her mother, who upped sticks and abandoned the family with a defiant glint in her eye long before the collapse, as if in obscene agreement, of civilised society. Against good reason, Ennor imagines her mother might be able to save them, or at least lend a helping hand.

She knows where she went—not that far away from the farm, in fact—so as opposed to waiting for the world to right itself somehow, she packs a bag, leaves her brother with her best friend Butch, and journeys alone into the wintry wilderness.
Her mother waltzed into her dream with her sanity intact and happiness for everyone was a given. [But] the merry flight of fantasy soon turned shocking and unbearable and Ennor sat balled and cold and insignificant to the world, the past hanging like an old damp coat hooked to the back of a door, lifeless and rotten. She pressed her hands over her eyes and dug her fingers in close to popping, pinning what couldn't be explained to the back of her mind to stop herself from crying. (p.55)
Needless to say, things don't go according to plan. Within hours of setting out she's injured her ankle badly, lost her map, and killed another kid—and winter has only just begun. If Ennor doesn't exhaust her scant supplies and starve, she'll surely freeze to death without shelter. But other people are seeking shelter as well... and other people are to be avoided at all costs.

Not because they've turned into zombies or anything along those lines—let's be clear about that from the start. Indeed, excepting the apocalyptic elements of the premise, there's nothing speculative about this novel at all. Its world is our world, albeit broken, and its people, equally, are our people: good and bad but mostly both, though the desperate times Winter Damage mines have demanded they take desperate measures.

On the surface, the situation is not dissimilar to that Cormac McCarthy explored in The Road: an appropriate point of reference for Winter Damage's first third if you can imagine that haunting tale told from the boy's perspective rather than the man's, and substitute its skeletal North American setting for the ghostly Cornish coast.

That said, Winter Damage is a much more optimistic novel than The Road. A surprising assertion, I'm sure, given how unbearably bleakly it begins, not to mention how horrendous Ennor's early hardships are. But overall, her journey charts a positive path. She makes a fabulous friend, Sonny, who shows her that there's still warmth to be had, however scant; a wonderful world to turn, however far it's fallen. Sonny gives Ennor hope again; instils in her a promise more potent than the prospect that her runaway mother will in any way save the day.
They laughed and Ennor remarked on what a ragtag family they had made and her words brought comfort to the others because that was what they had become. No matter what the future held, they would have that for ever and always stitched between them. (p.249)
Even at its most miserable—and oh, there are many low moments—Winter Damage is a truly beautiful book, bolstered in large part by a delicate cast of characters and a sublime sense of setting, but what sets it apart in the end is its impeccable prose. Hard to believe, really, that this is Natasha Carthew's first novel. She's published three volumes of poetry before, though, and it shows. Her words are carefully weighted: her descriptions, her dialogue, and the dialect in which she renders said inform a multitude of moods marvellously, meanwhile the mounting sound and essential sense of her sentences rings out as right in a manner most novelists never even attempt.

Small but perfectly formed, Winter Damage is the sort of book that begs to be read out loud, even if there's no-one else near to hear it. It's a stone-cold stunner with an uncommonly humble heart, and I urge you to take in into yours, too.

***

Winter Damage
by Natasha Carthew

UK Publication: August 2013, Bloomsbury
US Publication: January 2014, Bloomsbury USA

Buy this book from
Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com
IndieBound / The Book Depository

Or get the Kindle edition

Recommended and Related Reading


Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Coming Attractions | A Taste of Trillium

I may have taken my sweet time reading it, but at this late stage, I'm happy to come out and say that Sweet Tooth is without a doubt one of the very best Vertigo series there's ever been. If the imprint is indeed on the way out, as recent rumours suggest — though more recent statements have refuted these rumours — then Sweet Tooth is perfectly positioned to do double-duty as a swan song.

And what a song it sung.

But it's finished, now. The final trade paperback, namely Wild Game, was published last month. And much as I approve of actual endings, and I do — especially in the comics form, where stories either take lifetimes to tell, or are cruelly cancelled — I very much miss my monthly Jeff Lemire fix.

Luckily, there's more to look forward to from the award-winning singer/songwriter. Beginning with Trillium: an eight-issue limited series which "combines rich historical adventure and mind-bending science fiction into a sprawling, unconventional love story."


Courtesy Comic Book Resources, I give you the plot, and two pages from the comic proper. If there ever was a time to click to embiggen, incidentally, this is it!
It’s the year 3797, and botanist Nika Temsmith is researching a strange species on a remote science station near the outermost rim of colonized space. It’s the year 1921, and renowned English explorer William Pike leads an expedition into the dense jungles of Peru in search of the fabled “Lost Temple of the Incas,” an elusive sanctuary said to have strange healing properties. Two disparate souls separated by thousands of years and hundreds of millions of miles. Yet they will fall in love and, as a result, bring about the end of the universe. Even though reality is unraveling all around them, nothing can pull them apart. This isn’t just a love story; It’s the LAST love story ever told.
The first issue of Trillium will be released in early August.

If you have a heart, you'll buy it.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Book Review | Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan



Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his job as a web-designer and into a job working the night shift at Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. It is a curious shop with curious customers who wander in only to borrow obscure encoded volumes, all according to some arrangement with the mysterious Mr Penumbra. 

Intrigued and a little bored, Clay runs a computer analysis of the customers’ behaviour – and discovers that the dusty books and their dusty readers hold the key to a secret that stretches right back to when bookmaking began.

***


Have you ever felt the need to read? Been struck by the siren song of an awesome novel?

If you have — and I warrant we (you, reading this, and me) are well acquainted with this wonderful weakness — if you have, you'll know that it's one thing to want a book, but another to need one; to feel with every fibre of your being that you cannot be complete until you have swallowed the whole of some story.

For Clay Jannon, in his youth, the concluding volume of The Dragon-Song Chronicles fit the bill above, but in the years since the climax of said fictional fantasy saga, he hasn't felt so intensely about anything else. Not a book, not a woman, not a job — not nothing. Down on his luck at the outset of Robin Sloan's endearing if digressive debut, and hoping, perhaps, to recapture some of that passion, he applies for a job in a small bookshop in the Broadway district of San Francisco.

And that's all it takes. From the moment Clay crosses the threshold of Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, life is suddenly interesting again.
Inside: imagine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side. This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up — three stories of books, maybe more. I craned my neck back [...] and the shelves faded smoothly into the shadows in a way that suggested they might go on forever. (pp.7-8)
In part, this puzzling new perspective rallies his passion — his need, indeed. And it isn't long before Clay realises there's something funny going on when it comes to Mr Penumbra's customers. That said, it's a stretch to even call them customers, because they don't buy books from the front of the store: rather, they rent them from its mysterious rear.

Clay's first thought is that these folks are part of an arcane lending library, and soon his curiosity gets the better of him: he breaks the first rule of this unusual book club, and looks at one of the musty old tomes. He doesn't find a story, but a code... and down the rabbit hole he goes!

What unfolds is a magnificent mystery, initially. An investigation into what Clay christens the Waybacklist and the readers evidently addicted to it. It isn't to give the game away to say they're actually code-crackers: initiates of an ancient order dedicated to the study of a puzzle which has gone unsolved for many centuries. Their promised reward for finally figuring out this riddle? No less than life eternal.

To followers of the order, this is practically "catnip: a code to be cracked and the key to immortality, all in one," (p.148) though Clay is less than convinced by its supernatural aspect:
"I don't believe the immortality part, but I do know the feeling that Penumbra is talking about. Walking the stacks in a library, dragging your fingers across the spines — it's hard not to feel the presence of sleeping spirits. That's just a feeling, not a fact, but remember (I repeat): people believe weirder things than this." (p.147)
Which, sure, is true.

But Clay, needless to say, is a child of our time. The only things he really has faith in are his mobile phone and his MacBook, so of course he cannot resist applying contemporary tech to the old code Penumbra has dedicated his days to deciphering. This ambitious endeavour leads him to cross paths with Kat, who works for Google, and has at her fingertips resources equivalent to many million like minds.

I'm afraid this is where Sloan's first novel loses the larger part of its pull, because as soon as Google gets a look in, the narrative practically collapses. To a certain extent, the corporation's involvement helps to situate to strange amongst the true, lending credibility to the story's more incredible elements, but the trade-off is just too much. With every passing chapter, the central mystery becomes less magnetic.

Like The Shadow of the Wind, to which this text bears a deceptive resemblance, Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is at its very best when it taps into our love of literature — and at its very best, it is as remarkable a novel as Carlos Ruiz Zafon's first for adult audiences: a cryptic diptych, equally smart and sweet, warm and honest, esoteric, intriguing, and wonderfully witty.

Sadly, Sloan struggles to sustain the most effective elements of his debut, indulging instead in lengthy love letters to the aforementioned gods of tomorrow's technology — among a number of less distracting digressions. That said, these occur so often, and over the course of such a short novel, that an alarming proportion of the whole seems composed of packing peanuts; a miscellany of meaningless material that serves solely to pad out the plot of the laconic Kindle single I was unsurprised, ultimately, to learn Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore began as.

I wanted to love Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, and admittedly, there were bits of it I did, gathered around the outset especially. Additionally, Clay is a great narrator, and most of the story's supporting characters — Ajax and Kat and Mat — are as winning as him. The narrative, however, simply lacks substance... except, I suppose, as an ode to the enduring beauty of Google. And that's not what I come to my speculative fiction for, frankly.

***

Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore
by Robin Sloan

UK Publication: August 2013, Atlantic Books
US Publication: October 2012, Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Buy this book from
Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com
IndieBound / The Book Depository

Or get the Kindle edition

Recommended and Related Reading

Friday, 19 July 2013

Guest Post & Giveaway | Celine Kiernan Goes Into the Grey

Less than two weeks from today, Walker Books will be publishing Celine Kiernan's new novel, Into the Grey: a ghost story about two twins who spend a spine-tingling winter in a cottage on the coast after their nan burns the family home down to the ground.


I'll be reviewing Into the Grey in due course, of course. For now, it gives me great pleasure to begin a big ol' blog tour in support of the book.

If the truth be told, I don't often participate in such things, but this is a blog tour with a difference. I'm going to let Celine tell you why:
"The book has quite a few chills, there's quite a bit of political history in it, much exploration of death and loss—but there’s also a lot of love and kindness in it, a fair few laughs and a lot of bravery. I thought I’d have a bit of fun with that side of the book on this blog tour, so these posts will be all about music! Why certain songs feature in the story, what they mean to me, what memories are associated with them, etc. Into the Grey is set in the Irish seaside town of Skerries in 1974, all the songs featured are evocative to me of both that time and that (very real) place. As you will see, they all speak very much to the story, too, and to the characters and the rather desperate situation with which they find themselves entwined."
Now not only do I have a sneak peek at a scene from the book for you: it's a scene you won't find anywhere else. A deleted scene, indeed!

First, an introduction to the passage:
There’s a lot about family in this book. About how they can support you, about how they can let you down. About how sometimes you have to survive without them, and sometimes they’re the only thing that gets you through. In the original version there was a chapter which detailed Dom & Pat’s brief stay at their cousins’ house—this section is from that chapter. Just for the record, I do have a cousin Stella. In our teen-hood I worshipped and adored her (still do!) and I could not resist giving her this little cameo. The cameo may well be gone, but Stella is still very much ‘my fantastic, gorgeous, smart and funny cousin.’ There seems no better song in the world to describe her than The Doors’ ‘Love Her Madly.’
And a lovely song it is:


Without further ado, then, here's the scene itself:
‘Pat?’ She crouched down, and placed a steaming mug of tea by my nose. Just the embroidered hems of her flares and her Indian sandals were visible from the smelly cave of the sleeping bag, but I’d have know that smiling, smoke-husky voice anywhere: Stella, my fantastic, gorgeous, smart and funny cousin. I loved her to bits. She was just the best thing since sliced bread. 
I heaved myself into a sitting position, my head still wrapped in the sleeping bag. ‘Where’s Dom?’ I managed.  
Stella laughed her throaty laugh. ‘He’s in the bath. Everyone else is gone to school or work.’ 
She disappeared into the kitchen and began pottering about. Soon I smelled batch bread toasting and eggs frying. The radio was playing low and tinny on the kitchen windowsill. The Doors were asking, did we love her madly? Stella called through the door, ‘Your Mam and Dad will be running around for most of the day. Everyone thought you two’d be better off having a sleep-in.’
Short... but sweet, wouldn't you agree?

Thank you kindly for sharing, Celine.

Before I say good day, more neat news: I've gotten my grubby Scotch paws on a single finished edition of Into the Grey to give away. If you're based in the UK and you can tell me which seaside town the story's set in—you should already know if you've read this post—tweet your answers @niallalot or email them to thespeculativescotsman [at] gmail [dot] com, and I'll pick a winner next week.

Meantime, I hope you all have a wonderful weekend under the summer sun!

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Bargain Books | Five Years of Speculative Fiction, Free

In case you hadn't heard, Tor.com's fifth birthday is this week. This Saturday, in fact.

And what is Tor.com doing to celebrate its coming of age?

Why, it's having a party... and everyone's invited!


Yes, you too. Assuming you can make it to the Housing Works Bookstore and CafĂ© in New York City next Wednesday, you can look forward to free booze and free books. Plus, attendees can expect to rub shoulders with the likes of Ellen Datlow, Lev Grossman, Genevieve Valentine and Michael Swanwick—not to mention Stubby and the staff.

Not that I wasn't desperately tempted, but 24 hours of travel is a touch too much for yours truly, so I won't be able to make it.... but if you can, then indubitably, you should.

That isn't all Tor.com is doing to celebrate the big week either. Which brings me to the reason this is a Bargain Books post. You see, they've "assembled the entire last five years of [their] award-winning original fiction into one handy, and possibly physics-defying, ebook." That's not hyperbole either: the PDF is 500 MB. I made do with a MOBI file at only 153 MB.


You need to register for a free account to download The Stories: Five Years of Original Fiction on Tor.com, but that's the only requirement. Otherwise, this incredible compendium is completely gratis.

Well what are you waiting for? Go on and download it!

In short, happy birthday, Tor.com! And thanks for making the big day such a pleasure for the rest of us.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Book Review | River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay


Ren Daiyan was still just a boy when he took the lives of seven men while guarding an imperial magistrate of Kitai. That moment on a lonely road changed his life—in entirely unexpected ways, sending him into the forests of Kitai among the outlaws. From there he emerges years later—and his life changes again, dramatically, as he circles towards the court and emperor, while war approaches Kitai from the north.

Lin Shan is the daughter of a scholar, his beloved only child. Educated by him in ways young women never are, gifted as a songwriter and calligrapher, she finds herself living a life suspended between two worlds. Her intelligence captivates an emperor—and alienates women at the court. But when her father’s life is endangered by the savage politics of the day, Shan must act in ways no woman ever has.

In an empire divided by bitter factions circling an exquisitely cultured emperor who loves his gardens and his art far more than the burdens of governing, dramatic events on the northern steppe alter the balance of power in the world, leading to events no one could have foretold, under the river of stars.

***

Legends are not born, but made. Not fated, but carefully—or carelessly—shaped.

A lesson for the ages, there, but not one that every scholar takes to heart.
"Is it possible... can a man be born into the world to be something, for something?" 
"Yes," said the old man. "But even if he is, it doesn't always happen. Too much can intervene. The world does what it does, under heaven. Our dreams, our certainties, crash into each other." 
"Like swords?" Daiyan said. 
The old man shrugged. "Like swords, like ambitions at court." 
A silence. (pp.359-360)
Despite this oft-voiced thought, Ren Daiyan has felt possessed by something resembling destiny from an early age. As a boy of fifteen scant summers at the outset of Guy Gavriel Kay's sublime new novel, he is asked to help protect the sub-prefect on an investigative mission through treacherous territory. Thrilled by the prospect of "keeping order for the emperor" (p.16) in some small way, he accepts the request.

Bandits fall upon the caravan in short order. Surprising everyone except himself, Daiyan single-handedly slaughters them all. "What followed on that lonely path between forest and cliffs felt destined, necessary, not truly a matter of choosing. It was more as if the choice had been made for him, he was only the agency of its working." (p.23) Soon, he is revered as a local hero—and the legend of his life which River of Stars examines has begun.

It is a dark time for the empire under heaven, however, regardless of Daiyan's grand designs:
The Silk Roads through the deserts were lost, cut off by barbarians. 
No western treasures flowed to Kitai now, to the trading cities or the court in Hanjin. No legendary green-eyed, yellow-haired dancing girls bringing seductive music. No jade and ivory or exotic fruits, no wealth of silver coins brought by merchants to buy longed-for Kitan silk and carry it back west on camels through the sands. 
This Twelfth Dynasty of Kitai under their radiant and glorious emperor did not rule and define the known world. Not any more. (p.8)
Indeed, this is an empire diminished in every which way, which is to say from within its more modest borders as well as outwith. Unrest is on the rise: peasant rebellions and political protests are now par for the course. The great walls which once encompassed Kitai have crumbled. In turn, the glittering court has been humbled. And all the while, barbarians beat at the gates.

Though Daiyan is "serenely convinced" (p.246) that he will one day regain the fabled Fourteen—namely the outermost prefectures lost to the empire long ago—if Kitai is to survive, never mind thrive, its future will be fashioned by other hands than his.

Other hands... such as Lin Shan's. The only daughter of the court gentleman Lin Kuo, she has been educated, against all the guidance of the time, much as a male child might be:
She wasn't, of course, going to write any examinations, or wear robes with the belt of any rank at all, but her father had given her the learning to do so. And he had made her perfect her writing skills and the brush strokes of her calligraphy. 
The songs, the ci, she had discovered on her own. (p.45)
Shan comes to consider her unique upbringing a boon, however I fear few others do. As she puts it, "men tend to be made uneasy, or sometimes amused, by [her intelligence]," (ibid) while women outright dislike her. Yet she is a self-sufficient girl at the outset, and her determination develops with each subsequent summer. She comes of age quickly, and is promptly married off. But she does not simply submit to her husband. Instead, they become friends... equals, even—at least until the emperor himself takes an interest in Shan and her songs.

These events certainly factor in to who she is, but their impact is underpinned by her unwavering sense of self. To wit, though she does not know what to make of the emperor's fascination in the first, she is certain not to become some pretty pet or accessory. In her way, if I may, Shan proves as pivotal to Kitai as Daiyan dreams of being—albeit in a roundabout manner returning readers are likely to find familiar.
No real poet would claim originality for an image of streams becoming rivers over distance and time: how even those that can destroy farmlands with their flooding, or thunder through gorges and over falls, begin as rivulets in the rocks of mountains, or underground waters that find the surface and being to flow across the land to find the sea. 
Nor could the idea that rivers come together to make a single force be asserted as distinctive. The test is always in the words—and the brush strokes shaping them. There are only so many ideas, so many patterns in the world. (p.147)
That Guy Gavriel Kay has the confidence to acknowledge this is testament to his inimitable vision and ability, I think. After all, River of Stars does describe a rather archetypal pattern, especially as regards the author's own body of work. Themes and thoughts he has explored before reappear with some frequency. His protagonists occasionally behave in unsurprising ways, recalling heroes and stories of yore.

But don't dare be dismayed, because these things are only as similar, in this iteration, as they are different. The quarter turn the author often talks about also returns, and in River of Stars it applies to narrative and character as well as questions of setting. Here, you see, some rivulets become rivers, but others simply trickle, or dry up entirely. Great tales in the making are regularly interrupted, whilst a number of dreams come to nothing. As Kay contends:
Small events can be important in the unfolding, like a pleated sail, of the world. The survival of an emissary, say, or his drowning on a ship in a sudden summer thunderstorm. 
But sometimes such moments do not signify in the sweep and flow of events, though obviously they will matter greatly to those who might have thought their lives were ending in rain and wins, and for those who love them dearly and would have grieved for their loss. (p.313)
This, too, is an idea the award-winning author has put in the past—in The Last Light of the Sun, for one—but here he voices it so often, and so powerfully, that it is more than an incidental omen. It is a warning that the reader cannot but take to heart; a statement instead of a suggestion. Therefore a sense of terrible dread demarcates the redoubtable delights we have come to expect from Kay's fantastic fiction, gathering in force and scope as it goes.

In short, certain elements must be expected in order for the unexpected to be effective, and in River of Stars, it is.

Or is it?

I'm sorry. Sometimes I can't help myself. River of Stars really does pack a punch, in large part because of the way Kay plays with our expectations, engineering difference and originality out of our expectations of his characters and narratives—and the same can be asserted of the text's refreshed setting.

If the truth be told, few things in life get me quite as excited as the prospect of a new novel from this master craftsman. Nevertheless, I know I was not alone in wishing—when we first heard that River of Stars would return to the empire investigated in Under Heaven—that the author had channelled his inimitable imagination into a wonderful new world rather than returning to Kitai.

To all those who worried with me: rest easy. Centuries have passed since the Tagurans gifted Shen Tai with two hundred and fifty gorgeous horses, cursing him with kindness in the process, and time has absolutely ravaged Kitai. What once shimmered like a jewel in moonlight has not utterly dulled, but must of its lustre is, alas, lost—its glory is gone, sacrificed alongside a large expanse of land. Here's how Daiyan's embittered instructor phrases this change:
The spring tea harvest had been dismal, desperate, and the fields for rice and vegetables were far too dry. This autumn's crops had been frighteningly sparse. There hadn't been any tax relief, either. The emperor needed money, there was a war. Teacher Tuan had things to say about that, too, sometimes reckless things. 
[...] 
He'd told them that Xinan, the capital of glorious dynasties, had held two million people once, and that only a hundred thousand or so lived there now, scattered among rubble. He'd said that Tagur, to the west of them here, across the passes, had been a rival empire long ago, fierce and dangerous, with magnificent horses, and that it was now only a cluster of scrabbling provinces and fortified religious retreats. (p.4)
Ultimaltey, Twelfth Dynasty Kitai is so very different from the empire Under Heaven's readers will remember that it proves almost as satisfying as an entirely new milieu—and what little we do lose in lieu of another culture in place of Kay's impeccable portrayal of ancient China, we gain elsewhere, given how resonant River of Stars is with affectionate connections to its predecessor.

To be completely clear: you most certainly don't have to have read Under Heaven to appreciate Kay's latest—in fact, I can't imagine anyone coming away from this dazzling display feeling less than elated—but poignant nods to the characters, concerns and consequences of his masterful last fantasy make the return trip to Kitai that much more fulfilling.

It may be that you think you know what River of Stars is. You don't, though. As samey as I can see it seeming in some ways, rest assured that its every dimension is distinct in some sense. I suppose it hones closer to the author's other novels than Under Heaven—an outright exception to the pattern he has established over the years, and a revelation in its quiet way—but River of Stars is no less enthralling for its passing familiarity... which Kay plays into marvellously in any event.

I got just what I wanted out of River of Stars, and I wanted an awful lot. I wanted fundamentally memorable and delicately developed characters, a massively ambitious narrative, an exquisitely rendered setting, and prose so finely honed that it has all the impact of fine art. These are just a few of the things I've come to expect from Guy Gavriel Kay over the years, and he does not disappoint here.

Far from it. Kay on a bad day remains many times more absorbing than the vast majority of other genre authors, and I dare say River of Stars chronicles him on a great day. This is stunning stuff from one of fantasy fiction's finest. From one of fiction's finest, frankly.

***

River of Stars
by Guy Gavriel Kay

UK Publication: July 2013, HarperFiction
US Publication: April 2013, Roc

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Monday, 15 July 2013

But I Digress | Guilt by Amazon Association

I dare say everyone will be talking about the J. K. Rowling reveal today—I certainly will in Wednesday's edition of the British Genre Fiction Focus—but I wanted to take this time to talk about a topic that didn't quite make it into the column.

In a recent blog post for The Bookseller, you see, Keith Smith had a bit of a righteous rant about how certain authors—including Joanne Harris, Julia Donaldson, Alison Weir, Ian Rankin, Kate Morton and Patrick Ness—seemed to back Amazon and various other chain retailers despite having vouchsafed their support for smaller stores. For instance his:
“As someone who owns two independent bookshops I feel angry that these authors, unthinkingly or by design, have chosen to support Amazon, W H Smith or Waterstones without giving a fig for independent bookshops. Many of these are authors who, when asked, will say they couldn’t imagine life without their local bookshop. But words need to be matched by deeds if they are to make a difference.”
In principle, I agree with this part of Smith’s argument entirely—and so, it seems, do many of the authors he specifically took to task.

But Smith draws a hard line later in the originating article that I can’t quite get behind, by insisting that “the Booksellers Association should contact all authors immediately and ask them to stop supporting Amazon directly.”

Which strikes me, at least, as rather tyrannical. And a number of authors responded to Smith’s comments in kind. Alison Weir, for one:
“Linking to Amazon does not mean that I do not support independents. [...] The fact remains that publishers can shift large quantities of books through Amazon, W H Smith, Waterstones and the supermarkets, which are their main clients. Amazon also pays authors on their associates programme fees based on the number of books sold. Authors do have a living to make and Amazon can provide a great source of income which, sadly, independent book shops could not possibly meet. I understand the concerns of independent booksellers, and I think that there is a case to be made for Amazon to pay corporation tax, so that there would be fairer parity between its prices and those which independents with overheads have to charge. But accusing authors like me [...] of not 'giving a fig' for independents is not only ignorant but untrue; I think my deeds over the years give substance to my words."
Here’s Diana Kimpton, co-creator of the Pony-mad Princess picture books, speaking by way of The Bookseller again:
“I sympathise with small independent bookshops struggling through a recession, but authors are struggling too. Only a few get the high advances mentioned in the press. The rest earn much less, and many don't even get the equivalent of the minimum wage. As a result, the fact that the Amazon Associate scheme pays commission on sales resulting from links is very important. Because I have to split the royalty on my picture books with the illustrator, I actually earn more from the Amazon commission on a sale than I do from the publisher.”
Ultimately, I think Smith’s anger is a mite misplaced. Though it’s certainly the case that authors should be squarely behind independent booksellers, let’s face it: these days, most books are bought from the bigger names in the business, and to simply sever a supplementary source of income because Amazon and its ilk are, you know, completely evil, seems... well, selfish.

Let me be clear here. I sympathise with the plight of independent booksellers, but to ask for authors to support said stores solely goes against the real issue here: our right to choose where and from whom we buy our books. Why deny readers that? That they’re buying literature to begin with is, I think, the most important thing.

In one respect, then, Keith Smith is spot-on: authors should be seen to support choice.

But so should he, surely.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Book Review | The White Forest by Adam McOmber



Young Jane Silverlake lives with her father in a crumbling family estate on the edge of Hampstead Heath. Jane has a secret — an unexplainable gift that allows her to see the souls of man-made objects — and this talent isolates her from the outside world. Her greatest joy is wandering the wild heath with her neighbors, Madeline and Nathan. But as the friends come of age, their idyll is shattered by the feelings both girls develop for Nathan, and by Nathan’s interest in a cult led by Ariston Day, a charismatic mystic popular with London’s elite. Day encourages his followers to explore dream manipulation with the goal of discovering a strange hidden world, a place he calls the Empyrean.

A year later, Nathan has vanished, and the famed Inspector Vidocq arrives in London to untangle the events that led up to Nathan’s disappearance. As a sinister truth emerges, Jane realizes she must discover the origins of her talent, and use it to find Nathan herself, before it’s too late.

***


I've never been a particularly religious person, but even I am struck, sometimes, with the conviction that there must be more to the world than this. Some power greater than ours.

I don't mean to say that the world is not enough — that would make me the Bond villain of bloggers, after all. Nor do I intend to imply that the power people wield is at all paltry — to be sure, that too would be very far from the truth. But in the face of nature's creations, not to mention its infinite variations, it's hard to avoid being awed, is it not?

Be that as it may, I am content to live in a wonderful world and know that it is so, yet many demand more. To each their own, of course; I wouldn't dare discriminate! But from time to time, men like Ariston Day emerge from the many aforementioned. The antagonist of Adam McOmber's darkly fantastic first novel believes with every fibre of his being that there is somewhere a door to be opened; a membrane, maybe, to be teased — or torn — apart. And Day is determined to do so. At any conceivable cost.

The charismatic leader of a sensational sect known as the Theatre of Provocation, which has its headquarters deep beneath a tavern called the Temple of the Lamb, Day exists primarily on the periphery of McOmber's magnificently measured debut. His tempestuous presence, however, is felt from the first.

That's not the case for our narrator, Jane Silverlake, who has lived a lonely life. At once shunned by the poor and rejected by the rich, she seems set aside from society entirely at a time and a place, specifically Victorian-era England, which values nothing else as highly. To make her existence still more maudlin, she's been haunted by objects ever since losing her mother to an eerie fever — an uncanny talent that takes a telling turn during The White Forest's first act. Rather than simply singing to her, the things she sees start to speak; if not in words then courtesy increasingly crystalline images:
It was as if every object had become a curtain, and behind that curtain lay a new realm. The realm was not of simple colour and sound — it was an actual place. Had I read any of the burgeoning literature of scientific fiction, I might have called the place a "parallel dimension," but I had no word for what I saw. It was a landscape — a white forest, pale as paper, clearly a vision of some alien landscape. In the forest there was a stream of milk-white water that did not flow but remained still, as if frozen. There were flowers in the undergrowth — blossoms that appeared to be lit from within, like Chinese lanterns. I recognised the place. As a child, I'd seen it in dreams inside the mouths that opened in Mother's flesh. (p.90)
Jane tries to keep these surreal experiences a secret, but when she is befriended — quite out of the blue — by a beautiful young woman, Miss Madeline Lee, and a dashing gentleman-in-the-making named Nathan Ashe, her abilities inevitably become apparent. A powerful bond forms between the three thereafter, brought on by this shared knowledge, and the years elapse happily.
For a long while, we triangulated, and there was energy in that. I sometimes felt myself to be the center of our group, a project for both of them. It wasn't until Nathan discovered the Empyrean itself that everything truly got out of hand. The triangle was broken by that strange vision, and it was then that we began our free fall. (p.87)
Nathan's fascination with the Empyrean ultimately leads him into the arms of Ariston Day... and then he disappears completely. Quite literally, he is lost. An Inspector Vidoq — the model for the main character of many of Edgar Allen Poe's most notable short stories — is called in to investigate this locked room mystery of sorts, but Jane and Maddy only cooperate with Vidoq to a point. To preserve the sanctity of the secret they share, the ladies resolve to unravel the strange circumstances surrounding their dear heart's vanishing act themselves.

Little do they realise where the case will take them, and how it is bound to break them.

The White Forest has an absorbing plot, compelling characters and an exceptionally well-rendered setting, assuming you can get past a few factual and geographical inaccuracies, meanwhile McOmber imparts an abundance of exquisite imagery in pristine prose that often comes close to poetry. Little about this book is anything less than impeccable, in fact — let me state, out of the gate, that it's great; positively phenomenal for a first novel — but what impressed me most about The White Forest was its incremental descent into dark fantasy.

At the outset, the author plays it perfectly straight. His Hampstead Heath feels nearly real. His lords and ladies are far from the caricatures that tend to populate these sorts of novels; they're authentic individuals, flawed and self-absorbed, but not tortured or hysterical or wholly heroic. Our central characters are similarly convincing, which is to say, for all that they're the good guys, they do some despicable things.

In short, it's all awfully ordinary. But the extraordinary is never far away. Even the banality of the beginning is punctuated by moments of sudden, shattering violence. Confronted by Maddy's beauty in a mirror, for instance, Jane wonders:
What would it feel like [...] to crack the brush against her skull? An awful notion. She was mine, and I was hers. And yet she had a lovely face — I could not stop myself from thinking this — certainly lovelier than my own. But what did Nathan think? A horrid question. If Nathan ever chose one of us, the fantasy would be broken. Flood-waters would rise. (p.175)
And indeed they do.

But these are only isolated moments, initially. By the end, however, the unknowable notions that formerly suffused the fringes of the fiction have supplanted its earlier reality entirely; the last chapters don't even take place on our planet! Suddenly The White Forest is like Lovecraft come Among Others, Caitlin R. Kiernan meets The Croning, yet somehow McOmber makes the whole his own.

At once weird and wonderful, The White Forest is an uncanny confluence of magic and mystery, and over its controlled course, Adam McOmber paints a picture both beautiful and terrifying, exhibiting his mastery of both the fantastical and the practically factual. To come full circle, The White Forest is the sort of book that makes one wonder whether there mightn't be something more to the world than we're aware of, and it's my pleasure to recommend it unreservedly.

***

The White Forest
by Adam McOmber

US Publication: July 2013, Touchstone

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Monday, 8 July 2013

Book Review | The Sleep Room by F. R. Tallis



When promising psychiatrist, James Richardson, is offered the job opportunity of a lifetime, he is thrilled. Setting off to take up his post at Wyldehope Hall in deepest Suffolk, Richardson doesn't look back. One of his tasks is to manage a controversial project – a pioneering therapy in which extremely disturbed patients are kept asleep for months.

As Richardson settles into his new life, he begins to sense something uncanny about the sleeping patients – six women, forsaken by society. Why is the trainee nurse so on edge when she spends nights alone with them? And what can it mean when all the sleepers start dreaming at the same time?

It's not long before Richardson finds himself questioning everything he knows about the human mind as he attempts to uncover the shocking secrets of the sleep room...

***


It's no slight on life, but what an exhausting enterprise existence is!

If a single day goes by without some occurrence of angst, anger, regret, fear or frustration, we count ourselves lucky. But let's face it: this is a rarity. Life is full of strife. From time to time, horrible things just happen to happen, and on other occasions, we simply wake up on the wrong side of the bed.

That said, it doesn't much matter what's bothering or annoying us, what's upsetting or distressing us: everything tends to look better after a good night's sleep. Better, or at least very least different. Taking your recommended daily allowance of eight hours under the covers can help us see almost anything in a new light.

And why not extrapolate that out? If a short snooze can essentially obliterate the blues, why not assume that a longer period of unconsciousness might stand a chance of addressing much more serious and ingrained issues and conditions than those we face on a day-to-day basis?

People have, in the past. Yet there are very real reasons why this species of treatment isn't commonplace in our age — complications that The Sleep Room by F. R. Tallis in part examines.
"The precise mechanisms underlying the beneficial effects of narcosis were not understood; however, in his paper, Maitland had proposed that prolonged sleep might result in the disintegration of personality, allowing — at some later stage — for a healthier reconstitution. He likened the process to breaking and re-setting a leg. His advocacy of ECT as an additional component of treatment was based on the idea that it could hasten recovery by obliterating unpleasant memories." (p.52)
Whatever his methods, Dr. Hugh Maitland is a hugely respected figure in Britain in the 1950s of this fiction. The head of the department of psychological medicine at Saint Thomas's, he also consults for three other hospitals, and somehow finds the time to nurture something of a pet project as well.

Welcome to Wyldehope: a tiny countryside clinic revolving around a chamber wherein six disturbed women — variously  "orphaned, disowned, forgotten [and] lost" (p.290) — have been kept chemically sedated for a number of months. When Maitland offers James Richardson a position at the far-distant facility, he practically jumps at the chance. He parts ways with his casual companion and takes the first available train.

From this point on, Tallis's tenth novel is all atmosphere. Here's our aspirational protagonist arriving in Darsham:
"I stepped down onto a platform shrouded in mist. Stressed metal groaned, flashes of firelight emanated from the cab, and glowing cinders formed chaotic constellations above the smokestack. The effect was vaguely diabolical." (p.13)
And this is Richardson reflecting on his first impressions of the sleep room:
"I was reminded about something I had read many years before about the healing rituals of the ancient Greeks. The sick and troubled in those remote times were frequently instructed by a holy man to spend a night in an underground temple. There, they would have a dream that would cure them. It seemed to me that the sleep room was a modern-day equivalent. 
I was familiar with sleep laboratories. I had studied and worked in Cambridge and Edinburgh and they all had in common a strange, unreal atmosphere. But the sleep room at Wyldehope was different. The atmosphere was more intense, almost religious. It evoked feelings in me that I associated with certain churches—experienced in solitude and usually at dusk. In the hush and the shadow that enveloped those six beds were unexpected registers and suggestions of something beyond the reach of the senses." (pp.36-37)
Ever the rationalist, Richardson wonders whether what he's heard and felt is all in his head, but when one of his most promising patients takes a sudden turn for the worse, and a troubled nurse goes missing in the mist, it becomes abundantly clear that something as sinister as it is inexplicable has made Wyldehope its home.

Tallis makes the absolute most of this section of the text, obfuscating the other that haunts the property for as long as humanly possible. It is out of sight, certainly... but out of mind? Not quite. The ghost of Wyldehope exists strictly on the periphery of The Sleep Room, an unknowable entity which slowly but surely worries its insidious way into our subconscious.

The author handles all this wonderfully well, with measure and gentle suggestion. Even when the spectre takes centre stage, it is a thing "half seen, half imagined." (p.228) In fact, to repurpose our protagonist's reaction, "I am still not sure what it was that I saw [...] A shape behind the glare, an outline that encouraged the brain to supply missing details." (p.226) No more than that, and no less, neither now nor ever again. Yet it — whatever it is — feels as real to the reader as Richardson.

In the interim, intrigue and mystery are made manifest; Tallis creates and maintains an impeccable sense of suspense which alternately thrills and chills. It's no surprise that The Sleep Room comes from an Edgar Award nominee — the Edgars honour the finest mystery fiction in the business, and though Tallis's text has a speculative edge, it's best-in-class by most any measure.

There is talk of positioning this author as the Doctor of Fear, and indeed, Tallis is well qualified to take to task the arts of "somatic psychiatry." (p.156) His day job is as a clinical psychologist — with, I presume, a PhD — and he's clearly researched, in depth, the subjects here addressed. But this calculated phrase is apposite in other ways. Very much in the mode of a medical professional, Tallis induces a state of controlled tension early on in The Sleep Room, doses us appropriately, and proceeds to carefully monitor and moderate our exposure to any external stimuli that stand to affect our experience adversely.

When we awaken, it's as if nothing dramatic has happened. But something has. Something shocking.

The Sleep Room is a short novel — with a few cups of coffee and something soft to hold onto, you could reasonably read it in a single session. And you should, because this new book is as satisfying as it is alarming.

***

The Sleep Room
by F. R. Tallis

UK Publication: July 2013, Macmillan
US Publication: October 2013, Pegasus

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Friday, 5 July 2013

Trailer Trash | The Walking Dead Summer Special

Well, I know what I'm going to be doing this weekend.


You guys too?

400 Days is apparently a bridge between seasons one and two of Telltale's take on The Walking Dead. You'll recall that the phenomenal first season won any number of game of the year awards, including mine, and though this special standalone episode doesn't look to follow it directly, given the creative team's talent for character building — and for fashioning fascinating narrative out of a milieu which is, if we're honest, a lot like hundreds of others — I expect nothing less than excellence from 400 Days.

Incidentally, it occurs to me that the Microsoft Points card I bought to purchase this DLC with will probably be the last Microsoft Points card I ever have to buy. In part because the company are going with real money for marketplace transactions on the Xbox One, but largely because I'm still on Sony's side — never mind Microsoft's dramatic back-tracking after this year's E3. By then they'd made it crystal clear where there loyalties lay, which is to say, nowhere near me... or any other consumers, in truth.

I've pre-ordered a PS4, obviously. Knowing my proclivities, I'll probably cave and get an Xbox One eventually, but only once I'm sure Microsoft aren't planning to pull a fast one with DRM delivered via dashboard update or some similarly insidious bait-and-switch.

Either way, I won't miss Microsoft Points.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Book Review | This River Awakens by Steven Erikson



A time to escape.

Twelve-year-old Owen Brand and his family move to Middlecross, a riverside town in rural Canada, hoping to leave poverty and unhappiness behind.

A time for innocence.

Owen meets three local boys, and they soon form an inseparable band. Over the summer holidays they create their own world, a place apart from the adults who watch over them. Owen also grows close to Jennifer, a fascinating but deeply troubled girl.

And a time to grow up. Then the gang stumble across a body in the river — a discovery with unimaginable consequences for them and the town, from which there is no going back.

***


There are no gods in This River Awakens, only monsters — and the monsters of this novel are real as its readers. They are fathers, brothers and sons; they are sisters, mothers and lovers; and their lives, like ours, have little meaning. Their destinies are not manifest. Their actions, be they right or wrong, calculated or careless, kind or cruel, won't change the world. And the river around which Steven Erikson's indescribably dark debut revolves will run on regardless.

First published in 1998 under a cover bearing Erikson's other name, Steve Lundin, This River Awakens is far from the sort of narrative you might be inclined to expect from the Byzantine mind behind the ten volumes of The Malazan Book of the Fallen. That said, this novel could have been written by no other author. It bears many of the same traits that made Gardens of the Moon and its many successors such an immense and intense pleasure: the prose is painstaking; the characters incredibly complex; and though its themes lean towards the obscene, there's a real sweetness to them, equally.

What This River Awakens doesn't have is a whole lot of plot. Still, we've got to give it a shot.

It's 1971, and spring is in the air. Twelve year old Owen Brand and his family have just moved to Middlecross, a small town in the countryside of Canada. There, they hope to leave behind the hardships of the past, but over the course of the four seasons Erikson chronicles in this revised edition of his first novel, it becomes clear that real change must begin within.

Something of a serial new kid, Owen has little difficulty fitting in with the kids of Middlecross. He takes up with three other boys his age — Roland, an old-fashioned farmhand; a mean-spirited miscreant called Lynk; and Carl, the butt of every bad joke — and goes about insinuating himself into the dynamic they have established. They're a fearsome foursome before you know it. Of children, admittedly:
But it was our world and our time, when the earth loosed its secrets, staining our hands, our knees. The river birthed our cruel laughter, as it did our pensive silences. It carried pieces of the city half submerged past us, a barbaric pageant, a legion burdened with loot. Dead dogs and tree branches, tricycles frozen in bobbing ice, a water-filled wooden boat with pieces of dock still trailing from nylon ropes, a television casing — show endless scenes of flooding — and small, bedraggled clumps of feather. The booty of a strange war. 
The scene remains vivid in my mind. Four boys, aged twelve one and all. What lay before us was the river, remorseless like thought itself, in its season of madness. (pp.15-16)
These cryptic messengers hardly fill Owen with hope, however. He's merely making the best of a bad lot whilst waiting for the other shoe to drop. He's been here before, of course, so he struggles to see a possible tomorrow any different from today:
I did not imagine the future to be in any way different from the present. There would still be station wagons for the kids, washers and dryers in the basement, double beds and dens cluttered with the efforts of haphazard hobbies. And there would still be summers stained with motor oil and sweat. Nor did I think that we'd be any different: Lynch's quick grin and the stick in his hands; Carl fumbling behind us and wiping his nose on his sleeve; and Roland, silent and full of life, with dirt under his nails and calluses on his palms. And somewhere, there in the future, I'd still be the unknown with the darting eyes, his face an unreadable mask. (pp.136-137)
Owen does not think the river will touch him, but it will. It will affect all of the boys, because one day, in the course of their random rambling, they come across a bloated body on the shore: the rotting corpse of a giant man. For reasons none of the kids can articulate, they make a pact to keep this secret between them — and for a time, it binds them. It both preserves their innocence and promises a significant shift, as and when they are ready to accept certain adult realities.

In the interim, the thought of the body obsesses Owen especially:
He'd had a name once, and a life. He'd had dreams, fears, maybe even loves. Now, all that had been wiped away as completely as his own face. A man, a giant, a nobody. We owed him something — I wanted to give him back his face, his name, his history. I wanted to put him back in his rightful place. At the same time, he had come to exist only for us, and that made us more than what we'd been. He'd come to open our eyes, but they hadn't been opened enough. Not yet. He had more to give us. 
Even as I thought those thoughts, I felt uncertain, uneasy. We'd made a pact with a dead man — he could only speak to us with what he had left, and he now existed in each of us and life and infection he spread his silence through us, until we hardly ever spoke about him any more. Any yet, I sensed that we all felt the words piling up behind that silence. One day the dam would break, I suspected. (p. 249)
And one day it does.

All this unfolds at a pace I'm afraid many readers will call ponderous, to put it politely. "This was my first novel, and people said 'it's a bit long,'" (p.527) Erikson jokes in the acknowledgements, but though This River Awakens falls far short of the length of any of the author's massive Malazan novels, there's a whole lot less going on, and a problematic proportion of what we are treated to is of secondary interest at best.

The thing of it is, a surprisingly large cast of characters exist on the fringes of the fiction, and though some add to the scope of the story, offering alternative angles on Owen, Middlecross and more — particularly our precocious protagonist's love interest Jennifer, and Gribbs, the yacht club watchman who takes an unlikely interest in him — several other threads stand to contribute little more than mood. Fisk, for instance — a monstrous mink farmer who masturbates over the bodies of the wide-eyed beasts he breeds — is utterly repugnant, yet narratively redundant.

Which brings me neatly to another of This River Awakens' issues: as brilliantly written as it is, and it is — if the passages excerpted earlier haven't convinced you of this, I don't know what will — there's a discomfiting abundance of ugly in this novel. As such, readers of a sensitive disposition would be well advised to steer clear of Erikson's deeply disturbing debut. A lot of it is, in a word, disgusting. In addition to the aforementioned man and his mink — and the giant's rotting corpse, of course — a troubled girl is sodomised by her father in full view of the neighbourhood, one woman has her jaw destroyed by her drunken, hateful husband... and I could go on.

Indeed, I did; I kept reading, through all this awfulness and any number of other instances of trangressive violence and sexuality. In fact, that's a telling testament to the raw power of this novel — of Erikson's hypnotic prose in particular — for as sickening as it is, This River Awakens is bold, and indisputably beautiful, too.

In its way, I dare say. But Erikson's way is one Malazan fans will be familiar with. And in the same vein as the start of that series, this debut demands a lot of its readers early on. To be sure, it takes too long to get going, but as hard as This River Awakens is to get into, it's roughly twice as tough to get out of. So engrossing is this author's first fully-fledged work of fiction that the world itself feels unreal on the back of such a bleak and revealing dream.

Assuming, then, that you can get past the horrifying darkness at the heart of This River Awakens, a longing and lovingly lyrical coming of age tale awaits. A truly revelatory read, excepting the occasional digression.

***

This River Awakens
by Steven Erikson

UK Publication: January 2012, Bantam
US Publication: July 2013, Tor

Buy this book from
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