Thursday, 18 December 2014

But I Digress | Baby's First Audiobook

Confession time, folks: I'd never listened to an audiobook from beginning to end till 2014. Till this autumn, even.

In my defence, I had tried at various points in the past... but the time I have to spend simply listening is limited. Plus I suck at it, utterly: I have restless hands, so to listen to something I have to be doing something else at the same time. The dishes, for instance. Or driving. 

But I only do so many dishes; I only drive so far.

And there are things I listen to as often as possible. I've been a podcast fan for many years, as long-time TSS readers will recall, so between the Bombcast, Idle Thumbs, Rocket Talk, and the Skiffy and Fanty Show, there's been, before now, more than enough to keep my ears occupied—and I haven't even mentioned BBC Radio 4! There's always something fascinating on there, so on those rare occasions when my podcast supply ran dry, I tended to tune into Woman's Hour or whatnot.

But my circumstances, of late, have changed. Since the Summer I've been commuting to and from work—whihc is an hour and change away—twice a week. Then, sometime in September, the radio in my car broke, and no-one that I've taken it to in subsequent months has been able to identify why.

I ran out of podcasts stored on my phone pretty much immediately, and whilst I did waste an age looking for a few new ones, I came to my senses eventually. I tried streaming some radio, too, but I have a silly small data allowance, and I realised this was going to cost me a small fortune. 

So I bought myself an audiobook. More Fool Me by Stephen Fry, and read by said. He hasn't come up often on The Speculative Scotsman at bottom because he isn't either of those things—speculative or Scottish—but I'm a huge fan of the man, and I'd enjoyed the bits of his autobiography he shared at his live book launch.

More Fool Me lasted me a couple of weeks, and though I had significant problems with it as an autobigraphy—it's repetitive, incomplete and unbelievably brief—to my surprise, I enjoyed the experience of hearing it hugely.

So I doubled down when, all too quickly, it was finished: I bought the audiobook of Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson, which I'd been meaning to read since its release.

It's proven to be a completely different experience from More Fool Me. In the first instance, one of the two speakers reads his chapters with such bombast that his voice has been hard to get past. Other problems: this audiobook is fifty-odd hours in full, with long-ass chapters and few suitable stopping points. As such, I frequently find myself flabberghasted by the narrative, picking up as I must in the middle of a chapter. 

I've gone from one extreme to the other, I fear, and so you see: baby's first audiobook may well be baby's last... unless you lend a helping hand.

What I want from an audiobook, it seems, is something accessible. Sometimes that dovetails with my tastes. Something not too long overall, and read without the intrusion that's ruined (the audiobook of) Words of Radiance for me.

Recommend a friend?

Thursday, 11 December 2014

You Tell Me | The Year's Best Books

I still struggle to believe it's 2014, never mind the end of the year, nearly, but I'm reliably informed that I'm wrong. Not for the first time, nor the last, naturally.

The end of the year has come to mean something new to me, in recent years. There's Santa, sure; the birthday of the baby Jesus, but of course; and a bit of a break—yay! In advance of all that, though, the end of the year has, since the dawn of The Speculative Scotsman, signified a period of comprehensive critical consideration.

To that end, I tend to keep a list: of all the books I've read, the movies I've seen, the video games I've played, and so on. I failed at that in 2014, for various reasons, so forgive me, folks, if I overlook more than I usually do when the time comes to tackle Top of the Scots.

Truth be told, I was hoping we could compare notes—to begin with, about some of the best books we've read this year. Let me start you all off with a bit I contributed to the recent Reviewers' Choice on Tor.com:
2014 has been a banner year for British science fiction, beginning with The Echo by James Smythe—an immensely upsetting sequel that doubled down on the awesome promise of its unsettling predecessor—continuing courtesy Claire North’s fantastic Life After Life-alike, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August—a very different sort of novel than The Echo, yes, yet no less memorable—and concluding, because we’re already running out of room, by way of The Bone Clocks: the closest thing the man who came up with Cloud Atlas has written to a proper genre novel over the course of his career.
Reading through the other reviewers' recommendations, it's clear that I've completely failed at fantasy in 2014. I haven't read The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett or The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley, though I sincerely mean to make time to catch up on those books over the break.


I feel much more up to speed on my science fiction. That said, All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park managed to pass me by, and if ever a novel had my name on it...

Horror-wise... well. Here's where the lack of a list has really ruined me. I remember really liking the opening act of Revival by Stephen King, but it ended—spoiler warning—with giant evil ants, and gah all over that. To the best of my recollection, then, the only horror story that really stands out to me is the Southern Reach series by Jeff VanderMeer. Annihilation might just be the best book of the year, according to me. We'll see.

But please, you tell me: what have you read in 2014 that really rocked your socks?

Monday, 8 December 2014

Book Review | The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami


"All I did was go to the library to borrow some books."

On his way home from school, the young narrator of The Strange Library finds himself wondering how taxes were collected in the Ottoman Empire. He pops into the local library to see if it has a book on the subject. This is his first mistake.

Led to a special 'reading room' in a maze under the library by a strange old man, he finds himself imprisoned with only a sheep man, who makes excellent donuts, and a girl, who can talk with her hands, for company. His mother will be worrying why he hasn't returned in time for dinner and the old man seems to have an appetite for eating small boys' brains. How will he escape?

***

A couple of months ago, a story about the closure of yet another local library caught my eye at the same time as I was searching for a subject for the sixty-some students I teach to tackle—a problem of sorts for them to set about solving. I had in my head an exercise which would require each pupil to suggest a selection of strategies that might make the local library relevant again. 

Quite quickly we hit a wall, as I recall. It wasn't that the kids didn't grasp the task at hand; if anything, they understood the problem too well. None of them, you see—not a one—had even been to a library, far less used its facilities. In short order I saw that I'd based the week's work on a false premise: that local libraries had ever been relevant to them.

They certainly were to me, once—as they are to the narrator of The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami: a nearly new novelette from the author of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

Originally released in Japan in the lean years between After Dark and IQ84, The Strange Library, as translated by Ted Goosen, tells the tale of an anonymous boy who gets more than he bargained for when, on the way home from school one afternoon, he visits his local library to look through a textbook or two:
To tell the truth, I wasn't all that eager to learn about Ottoman tax collection—the topic had just popped into my head on the way home from school. As in, I wonder, how did the Ottomans collect taxes? Like that. And ever since I was little my mother had told me, if you don't know something, go to the library and look it up. (p.7)
To that end, The Strange Library's nameless narrator is directed to a room in the basement of the building, where "a little old man" with "tiny black spots [dotting] his face like a swarm of flies" (p.6) suggests several suitable books. The thing is, these books can't be borrowed—they have to be read in the reading room—and though the boy is already second-guessing himself, he's so obscenely obedient that he allows this apparent assistant to shepherd him still deeper into the library's lower levels.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Book Review | Ultima by Stephen Baxter


The hatches we discovered on Per Ardua were only the beginning. Bizarre gateways of alien design that allowed us to step across light years, they opened up the galaxy to us. They took us elsewhere and elsewhen, into a universe of futures and pasts that we could barely have imagined.

And we stumbled across a plan. A plan that stretched from the beginning of time to its end. A plan that needed us. Well, some of us. Now we have discovered just how small a part we play. It is time to change that.

***

Worlds and times collide in the concluding volume of the absorbing duology Proxima kicked off: "a story that encompasses everything that will be and everything that could have been," just as Ultima's flap copy claims, but fails, I'm afraid, to take in the little things—not least characters we care about—in much the same way as its intellectually thrilling yet emotionally ineffectual predecessor.

Ultima ultimately advances Stephen Baxter's ambitious origin-of-everything from the nearest star to Earth at the inception of existence to the end of time on the absolute farthest, but first, the fiction insists on exploring, at length, what the galaxy would look like in terms of technology if the Roman Empire hadn't fallen in the fifth century.

When we last accompanied Proxima's protagonist, Yuri Eden had just travelled through the portal he chanced upon at the pole of Per Ardua, which planet he and hundreds of other unfortunates had been given little choice but to colonise. The very fact of the Hatch changes everything, however; it is, after all, evidence of alien intelligence. But what do these beings want—whatever, wherever or whenever they may be?

Ultima opens on the other side of the Per Arduan portal with, rather than an answer, a deflection in a dead lanaguage—or, according to the ColU, "a lineal descendant of classical Latin anyhow." (p.21) The speaker of this strange tongue introduces himself as Quintus Fabius, centurion of the star vessel Malleus Jesu, and sets about doing what any good centurion would do: taking Yuri and his companion Stef Kalinski prisoner.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Book Review | Symbiont by Mira Grant


The SymboGen-designed parasites were created to relieve humanity of disease and sickness. But the implants in the majority of the world's population began attacking their hosts, turning them into a ravenous horde.

Panic spreads as these predators begin to take over the streets. In the chaos, Sal and her companions must discover how the parasites are taking over their hosts, what their eventual goal is—and how they can be stopped.

***

On the back of the unsightly excitement of Parasite, something like rigor sets in as the second half of what was a duology turns into the middle volume of a tolerance-testing trilogy. Symbiont isn't a bad book by any means—it's accessible, action-packed, and its premise remains appallingly plausible—but absent the ambiguity that made its predecessor so unsettling, it's  lamentable for its length and lack of direction.

The first part of Parasitology chronicled the apocalyptic consequences of SymboGen's latest and greatest innovation: the ubiquitous Intestinal Bodyguard—a magic pill meant to protect against allergy, illness and infection—was a worm which, in time, turned; a symbiotic organism supposed to support its host yet set, instead, on supplanting said. Before long, of course, this conflict of interests turned the population of San Francisco and its suburbs into zombies of a sort—sleepwalkers, as Mira Grant would have it.

The transition went differently for a few folks, though. After a catastrophic car crash, and at the cost of her every memory, Sally Mitchell's parasite saved her life... or so she thought.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Book Review | Wolves by Simon Ings


At school, Mick and Connie cooked up all the ways the world could end.

Years later, Michel imagines apocalypses for a living, and lives inside fantasies of the Fall. Conrad works in advertising, spinning aspirational dreams out of imaginary light.

Will their reunion reveal who killed Conrad’s mother?

Will it make them a lot of money? Or, just maybe, bring about the collapse of Western civilization?

A surreal whodunnit about what happens when unhappy men get their hands on powerful media, Wolves is an informed, atmospheric, cutting-edge tale of the near future.

***

Wolves has been hailed as Simon Ing's "spectacular return to SF," and it is that, I think—though the text's spare speculative elements only come into focus in advance of the finale, when the augmented reality Conrad's company conceives of matures into something more meaningful than an idea.

The rest is something else: a catastrophic coming of age tale complicated by a macabre mystery which reminded me of This River Awakens. At the book's beating heart, however, is the frustrated friendship between Conrad and his schoolmate Michel:
Michel was quiet, lugubrious, self-contained. For me, at any rate, he had extraordinary presence. A glamour. If he understood my feelings for him, he never let on. He showed very little tenderness for me. He wasn't interested in my weaknesses. He wanted me to be strong. He cared for me as you would care for your side-kick, your familiar, for the man you had chosen to watch your back. He said we had to toughen up. (p.31)
For what? Why, for The Fall, folks!

"The End Times were on their way. [Michel] was convinced of this." (p.98) Conrad isn't so sure, but he plays along with his hero's apocalypse prep—both to be with him and to escape the hell of his own home, an Overlook-esque hotel with an equally unsettling clientele: war veterans who were blind before our central character's father equipped them with special sensory vests.

All of which comes into play in a major way later, but at the beginning of the book, it's background. At the foreground of this phase of the fiction is Conrad's manic mother: a woman who habitually abandons her family in favour of "a protest camp that had grown up around a nearby military airbase." (p.51) She has to be rescued from this retreat repeatedly—a pattern rudely interrupted one summer when Conrad discovers her dead body in the boot of his father's car.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Book Review | The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu


With the scope of Dune and the commercial action of Independence Day, the near-future Three-Body Trilogy is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience a multiple-award-winning phenomenon from China's most beloved science fiction author.

The first book in the trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, begins against the backdrop of China's Cultural Revolution, when a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and begins planning their introduction to Earth. 

Over the next few decades, they establish first contact via very unlikely means: an unusual online video game steeped in philosophy and history. As the aliens begin to win earthbound players of the game over to their side, different schools of thought start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

***

What would you do to save the world?

That is, the planet as opposed to the people—we're the problem, after all—so better, perhaps, to ask: what would you do for a solution? Would you kill your own comrades, if it came to it? Would you sacrifice yourself? Your sons and daughters? Would you betray the whole of humanity today for a better tomorrow?

These are some of the provocative questions posed by The Three Body Problem, the opening salvo of Galaxy Award-winner Cixin Liu's fascinating science fiction trilogy, which takes in physics, philosophy, farming and, finally, first contact.

But it all begins in Beijing in the 1960s, when Ye Wenjie watches in horror as an unrepentant professor is beaten into oblivion by four fourteen-year-olds "fighting for faith" (p.19) at "a public rally intended to humiliate and break down the enemies of the revolution through verbal and physical abuse until they confessed to their crimes before the crowd." (p.11) The subject of this so-called "struggle session" is Ye's father, in fact, and his is a death she'll never forget:
It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race. [...] This thought determined the entire direction of Ye's life. (p.28)

Monday, 17 November 2014

Book Review | Revival by Stephen King


In a small New England town, in the early 60s, a shadow falls over a small boy playing with his toy soldiers. Jamie Morton looks up to see a striking man, the new minister, Charles Jacobs. Soon they forge a deep bond, based on their fascination with simple experiments in electricity.

Decades later, Jamie is living a nomadic lifestyle of bar-band rock and roll. Now an addict, he sees Jacobs again—a showman on stage, creating dazzling 'portraits in lightning'—and their meeting has profound consequences for both men. Their bond becomes a pact beyond even the Devil's devising, and Jamie discovers that revival has many meanings.

A masterpiece in the great American tradition of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, this rich and disturbing novel spans five decades on its way to the most terrifying conclusion Stephen King has ever written.

***

Whether you love his work or loathe it—and there are those who do, difficult as that is for those who don't to discern—you've got to give Stephen King credit, in the first for working so damned hard. Over the forty years of his career, he's written fifty-odd novels, and financially, you have to imagine he'd have been sitting pretty after the first five.

This, then, isn't a man who does what he does for the money. Demonstrably, I dare say, he does it for the fun, and that's a fine thing, I think; after all, to paraphrase Dreamcatcher's central character, doing the same shit day after day does get dull, and dull is the last thing a writer writing recreationally can afford to be. To escape that fate, King has reinvented himself repeatedly in recent years. He's come up with a couple of very credible crime thrillers, commingled conspiracy with the stuff of science fiction and composed love letters to the old days and ways.

In that respect, Revival is a real throwback. A supernatural horror novel of the sort not seen since Duma Key, it's classic King, complete with fantastic characters, a suggestive premise and an ending I'm going to politely describe as divisive.

Revival begins reflectively:
In one way, at least, our lives really are like movies. The main cast consists of your family and friends. The supporting cast is made up of neighbours, co-workers, teachers, and daily acquaintances. There are also bit players: the supermarket checkout girl with the pretty smile, the friendly bartender at the local watering hole, the guys you work out with at the gym three days a week. And there are thousands of extras—those people who flow through every life like water through a sieve, seen once and never again. [...] But sometimes a person who fits none of these categories comes into your life. This is the joker who pops out of the deck at odd intervals over the years, often during a moment of crisis. In the movies this sort of character is known as the fifth business, or the change agent. When he turns up in a film, you know he's there because the screenwriter put him there. But who is screenwriting our lives? (p.1)
There's a lot in this paragraph to unpack: the idea of the illusion of life; the allusion, not unrelatedly, to God as the author of all; and an introduction to the narrative's eventual antagonist, Reverend Charles Jacobs. Let's focus on that last.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Book Review | Wakening the Crow by Stephen Gregory


On a freezing night in January bookshop owner Oliver Gooch and his small daughter Chloe come across the crow, a raggedy skeletal wretch of a bird, which takes up a persistent refuge in their new converted church home.

Oliver took the money for the church from his daughter’s accident insurance. Chloe, once a rambunctious and defiant child, is now a silently smiling companion to Oliver; both a gift and curse as Oliver balances his guilt over her accident with his preference for this new, easy-to-manage child.

As the crow begins to infiltrate their lives it changes something in Oliver and Chloe. How is the crow connected to the boyhood tooth of Edgar Allan Poe, a mysterious gift to Oliver from which his bookshop draws its name, and with what purpose does it haunt the gloomy, fire-lit vestry of Poe’s Tooth Books?

***

Stephen Gregory pulls precisely none of his punches in Wakening the Crow, a darkly fantastic fiction about family which, like The Waking That Kills before it, is interested in the ties that bind us together largely because these lead to the lies that drive us apart.

Oliver Gooch is "a dabbler and a dilettante," someone who would "always procrastinate if there was an easier option," (p.95) and this past year, there has been. He and Rosie, his hard-working wife, have come into a substantial sum of money—enough, though the numbers go undisclosed, to purchase a church: an old Anglican in one of Nottingham's nicer suburbs.

"No, not the whole building," Gooch is quick to qualify. "As the congregation had dwindled to almost nothing, the commissioners had closed the church and sold it as two parcels. The body of the building was now a furniture warehouse. We'd bought the tower," to live in, and the vestry as well—a very special space our protagonist plans to turn into a bookshop. Specifically "a specialist outlet of strange and occult and arcane books. The shop I'd daydreamed foolishly about having." (p.27)

Now he's in a position to realise those same daydreams, you'd think he'd be happy, but how Gooch found himself here—the appalling cost of it—haunts him. Him and Rosie both. After all, they bought what they've got with blood money; with an insurance payout made after their daughter was brain-damaged in a car accident:
She wasn't the sly, defiant, occasionally foul-mouthed Chloe she'd been before. She couldn't speak. She couldn't read. She just smiled. She blinked and she smiled, in utter, blank, angelic silence. She was lovely, in the same way that a soft and harmless Labrador dog is lovely, but she was altered completely. (p.23)
For the better, in Gooch's book.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Book Review | Riding the Unicorn by Paul Kearney


Warder John Willoby is being pulled between worlds, disappearing for minutes at a time from the prison and appearing in the midst of a makeshift medieval encampment before tumbling back. That, or he’s going mad, his mind simply breaking apart. It’s clear, to him and to his family, it must be the latter. 

His wife can barely stand him, and his daughter doesn’t even try; he drinks too much and lashes out too easily. He isn’t worth anyone’s time, even his own. But in this other world—this winter land of first-settlers—he is a man with a purpose, on whom others rely. A man who must kill a King so as to save a people. With a second chance, Willoby may become the kind of man he had always wanted to be.

***

The third of three resplendent reissues of Northern Irish author Paul Kearney's very earliest efforts completes the sinuous circle described in his dreamlike debut, A Different Kingdom. Riding the Unicorn is a darker fiction by far—it's about the abduction of a man who's likely losing his mind by the conniving by-blow of a hateful High King—but it's as brilliant a book as it is brutal, not least because our hero, Warden John Willoby, is a horrible human being; fortunate, in fact, to find himself on the right side of the cages he keeps his prisoners in.

He has, in the first, a truly terrible temper. To wit, he's wholly unwelcome in his own home, where his wife and daughter strive each day to stay out of his way. Willoby isn't an idiot—he's well aware of their disdain—he just doesn't give a two bob bit:
There was a wall between his family and himself. It had been growing silently for years, a little at a time, and the little things that would have helped break it down had been too much trouble. Now it was a high, massive thing. He was no longer sure there was a way through it. Worse, he was no longer sure he cared. (p.29)
Still worse, Willoby is worried that a few of his marbles might be missing, so fixing things with his family is hardly his highest priority. He's been seeing things for some months—inexplicable visions of a luscious landscape—and hearing voices in his head; talking nonsense, no less, in some untold tongue.

He should see a doctor, obviously. His wife Jo certainly thinks so. But Willoby, in his infinite wisdom, refuses to face facts, presupposing a diagnosis delivered with "a bottle of pills and a pat on the head, some medical gibberish about stress, or insomnia. Bollocks, all of it." (p.26) That said, he can't shake the suspicion that a crisis is coming, "some crux of events inevitably advancing towards him. The sense terrified him. It was like a dark cloud always in the corner of his eye." (p.123)

Friday, 7 November 2014

Book Review | Bathing the Lion by Jonathan Carroll


In Jonathan Carroll's surreal masterpiece, Bathing the Lion, five people who live in the same New England town go to sleep one night and all share the same hyper-realistic dream. Some of these people know each other; some don’t. 

When they wake the next day all of them know what has happened. All five were at one time “mechanics,” a kind of cosmic repairman whose job is to keep order in the universe and clean up the messes made both by sentient beings and the utterly fearsome yet inevitable Chaos that periodically rolls through, wreaking mayhem wherever it touches down—a kind of infinitely powerful, merciless tornado. Because the job of a mechanic is grueling and exhausting, after a certain period all of them are retired and sent to different parts of the cosmos to live out their days as "civilians." Their memories are wiped clean and new identities are created for them that fit the places they go to live out their natural lives to the end. 

For the first time all retired mechanics are being brought back to duty: Chaos has a new plan, and it's not looking good for mankind...
***

Jonathan Carroll's first full-length work of fiction in six years is as rooted in the real as it is the surreal its synopsis suggests. Bathing the Lion is about a quintet of cosmic mechanics who can read minds and remake the mundane recovering their talents in advance of the arrival of a fearsome force called Chaos—which seems, I'm sure, like a properly science fictional plot. But it's not.

To wit, the World Fantasy Award-winning author evidences precious little interest in the ultimate result of this clash between... not good and evil, exactly, but order and its opposite. Rather, Carroll restrains his tale to the strictly small scale, in the process pointedly refusing the reader's needs.

Bathing the Lion is a lot of things, but one thing it isn't is exhilarating. In fact, there's very little actual action. Instead, expect a whole lot of talking, some potted philosophy and a dream sequence that lasts the entire first act...

Not that we're aware of its nature, initially. By all accounts, Bathing the Lion's first third appears to be an introduction to the five former mechanics we foresee facing off against the coming Chaos.


Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Book Review | Retribution by Mark Charan Newton

 

Having just solved a difficult case in his home city of Tryum, Sun Chamber Officer Lucan Drakenfeld and his associate Leana are ordered to journey to the exotic city of Kuvash in Koton, where a revered priest has gone missing. When they arrive, they discover the priest has already been found—or at least parts of him have.

But investigating the unusual death isn't a priority for the legislature of Kuvash; there's a kingdom to run, a census to create and a dictatorial Queen to placate. Soon Drakenfeld finds that he is suddenly in charge of an investigation in a strange city, whose customs and politics are as complex as they are dangerous.

Kuvash is a city of contradictions; wealth and poverty exist uneasily side-by-side and behind the rich façades of gilded streets and buildings, all levels of depravity and decadence are practised.

When several more bodies are discovered mutilated and dumped in a public place, Drakenfeld realizes there's a killer at work who seems to delight in torture and pain. With no motive, no leads and no suspects, he feels like he's running out of options. And in a city where nothing is as it seems, seeking the truth is likely to get him killed...
***

The laid-back detective drama of Drakenfeld marked a propitious departure for Mark Charan Newton: an assured move from the weird and sometimes wonderful fantasy with which he had made his name to a tale of mystery and alt-history not dissimilar to C. J. Sansom's Shardlake stories.

But with all-out war in the offing—in large part because of Drakenfeld's discoveries at the end of the text so titled—and a serial killer torturing and slaughtering some of most prominent people in the kingdom of Koton, the darkness of the Legends of the Red Sun series is back; a change of pace Newton paves the way for on the first page of his new book.

"In over thirty years of life, a decade of which has been spent as an Officer of the Sun Chamber," Lucan Drakenfeld remarks, "the world has long since robbed me of my limitless optimism." (p.1) To be sure, he appears a pretty positive protagonist compared to grimdark Princes like this year's Jalan and Yarvi, yet the events of Retribution are still to take their toll—on its hero and, indeed, its reader.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Book Review | The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber


It begins with Peter, a devoted man of faith, as he is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea. Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC. His work introduces him to a seemingly friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hungry for Peter’s teachings—his Bible is their “book of strange new things.” But Peter is rattled when Bea’s letters from home become increasingly desperate: typhoons and earthquakes are devastating whole countries, and governments are crumbling. Bea’s faith, once the guiding light of their lives, begins to falter. 

Suddenly, a separation measured by an otherworldly distance, and defined both by one newly discovered world and another in a state of collapse, is threatened by an ever-widening gulf that is much less quantifiable. While Peter is reconciling the needs of his congregation with the desires of his strange employer, Bea is struggling for survival. Their trials lay bare a profound meditation on faith, love tested beyond endurance, and our responsibility to those closest to us.

***

Michel Faber's first novel since The Fire Gospel—a sterling send-up of The Da Vinci Code and its ilk—is a characteristically compelling exploration of faith which takes place "in a foreign solar system, trillions of miles from home," (p.47) on a wasteland planet populated by hooded beings with foetuses for faces.

So far, so science fiction. Factor in first contact, a spot of space travel, and an awful lot of apocalypse, and The Book of Strange New Things seems damn near destined to be speculative. Unfortunately for fans of the form, as the author warns early on, "there was nothing here to do justice to [that] fact." (p.47) Or, if not nothing, then very little aside the superficial.

Even in addition to the aforementioned trappings, honeydewed drinking water and a dizzying day/night cycle do not add up to much more than an unlikely lens through which to look at love: in the first between mere mortals, but above and beyond that, the love—and the love lost—between man and maker.

The Book of Strange New Things is beautiful, albeit brutal. Despairing to a degree, but also bullish about the future. Hope, however, is a fragile thing, as Faber's protagonist preaches at a point:
As fragile as a flower. Its fragility makes it easy to sneer at, by people who see life as a dark and difficult ordeal, people who get angry when something they can't believe in themselves gives comfort to others. They prefer to crush the flower underfoot, as if to say: See how weak this thing is, see how easily it can be destroyed. But, in truth, hope is one of the strongest things in the universe. Empires fall, civilisations vanish into dust, but hope always comes back, pushing up through the ashes, growing from seeds that are invisible and invincible. (p.315)
Indeed, Peter Leigh means to be one of these seeds; to share his hope—the faith that saved him from a life of drug abuse and destitution—with the natives of Oasis. He still struggles to believe the Powers That Be at USIC picked him of all people—him but not his wonderful wife Bea, who did deliver Peter from his dark past—to be an apostle upon another planet; to spread the Good News about God to the "indigenous inhabitants" (p.71) of this unknowable new world.

Friday, 31 October 2014

But I Digress | My Little Alien

"It started with one word. One word appearing slowly against the blackness of space: ALIEN."

It did indeed—for me, and I can't imagine how many millions of other admirers of the aforementioned franchise.

That quote, in case you were wondering, comes from the back cover copy of Alien: The Archive: a beautiful new book that's taken pride of place on the coffee table in the corner of the spare room the other half and I spent the autumn turning into a lovely library.

It's a massive thing—The Archive rather than the library—and not half as expensive as it is expansive. No surprise, I suppose, since it's the first official book about all four of the films. That said, it did surprise me. I was expecting a collection of film stills and a bit of behind-the-scenes business; a few storyboards and prop shots, possibly, printed on great big glossy pages. 

(Knowing me, as I do declare I do, I'd have bought the book on that bare basis, if Titan hadn't kindly sent a complimentary copy along, What can I say? I have Alien on the brain.)

Make no mistake: The Archive has all that, but it's so much more than just a book of pretty pictures; of illustrations and annotations. It begins with an overview of the franchise so far, by way of an involved interview with its star, the wonderful Sigourney Weaver. The remainder is arranged according to the four films featured. The pages devoted to Alien take in, for instance, an extensive introduction based on interviews with the cast and crew, followed by briefer pieces about sketches and concepts, building the world, casting the characters, making the models, filming the effects, and a fair few other things. Aliens,  Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection all receive the same detailed treatment.

It's an incredible compendium—and, considering that Christmas is coming, a great gift idea, if your friends or family members are fans of the franchise. Not a few of the folks we've had over to see our lovely library have spent longer looking at this book than admiring the room I renovated, and I don't even begrudge them their distraction.

If you've got Alien-friendly gamers to get gifts for, also consider Alien: Isolation, which I finally completed this week. I don't have a huge amount to add to the more responsible reviews out there, except to say that the save system, though archaic and fundamentally frustrating, in many ways makes the game: the tension that is Isolation's single greatest strength is never tighter than when you're hunting for the save station's distinctive beeping after surviving a couple of close encounters with you-know-who.

Also, the aesthetic? Pitch perfect. The sound design? Superlative. Isolation is the best Alien game there's ever been by far. It'd have been a better eight hour experience than it is a twenty hour epic—the mechanics wear more than a little thin during the mediocre middle act—but Isolation, like The Archive, exceeded my every expectation.

Now I have a couple of classes to teach this evening, and a party to attend afterwards, nevertheless, I know what I'll be doing during the wee hours of Halloween.

"It started with one word. One word appearing slowly against the blackness of space: ALIEN."

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Guest Post | "Short Fiction in the New Publishing Reality" by Gail Z. Martin

Not too long ago, people were quick to say that short fiction was dead. They pointed to the demise of several long-running, celebrated fiction magazines, and to lackluster sales for anthologies, and concluded that the long form had won.

As Mark Twain once said, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

Whether you bless ebooks or curse them, one thing they have given us back is the viable short story and anthology. Authors discovered that writing short stories and selling them on Amazon and other online platforms was a good way to keep existing readers happy and bring in new readers with a low-risk opportunity to sample the wares. Anthologies do exceptionally well on Kickstarter because multiple authors each with his/her own fan base can quickly gin up support and boost the signal for the project.

Never has a corpse returned to the land of the living quite so quickly.

Ebooks and online bookselling has substantially altered the business of publishing and continues to send shockwaves through the industry. But by creating a viable and potentially profitable way for authors to bring short fiction to market, the incentive exists for authors to write short form. Whether they are contributing to a Kickstarter anthology or bringing their self-published short stories to market independently, authors are no longer limited by the number of paying venues for short fiction and the time-consuming effort of pitching a story, sometimes multiple times before finding it a home. Stories can also tackle timely issues more easily, since the time-to-market is decidedly shortened.

A funny thing happened when people began reading on smart phones and tablets. All of a sudden, they discovered that they liked reading a story they could finish in the car pool van or on the train in the way into work, instead of always being stuck at a good part and not being able to get back into a full book for hours. Mobile device readership is growing, especially in the under-30 demographic, and those readers enjoy bite-sized fiction, stoking a demand for more short stories.

Short stories have also become a promotional tool for novel writers, in addition to being an end in themselves. I’ve been part of four Kickstarter anthologies in the last year. Each of them featured one of my short stories as part of the anthology. In addition, backers received a three-pack of stories from my two short story series if the anthology reached specific dollar goals.

What this meant was that thousands of new readers got a sampler platter of my short stories based on my book series, introducing them to me and my worlds. Sites like Wattpad take this a step farther, enabling authors to reach millions of members with free short fiction to garner comments and build audience.

A year ago, I began writing two series of short stories related to my novels. The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures are prequels to my Chronicles of the Necromancer series. That series is currently on hiatus as I write the Ascendant Kingdoms books, but loyal readers wanted more in the Winter Kingdoms world. By serialising what are essential three prequel books into stand-alone short stories with a larger plot arc, I’m able to give readers what they want without foreclosing future publishing opportunities, and earn a nice side income to boot.

Likewise, my Deadly Curiosities Adventures began as a universe I created specifically for anthology contributions. When Solaris Books liked “Buttons”, the story I contributed to Magic: The Esoteric and Arcane, and asked for a book series based on that story, the short stories continued in anthologies and direct to ebook on Kindle/Kobo/Nook. The short stories aren’t required reading to enjoy the books, but they do add additional details and background that fans of the series will find interesting. They take place before, after and in between the novels. I bring out a new short story in either my Jonmarc Vahanian or Deadly Curiosities series once a month. I’ve also written an original Deadly Curiosities novella and posted it free on Wattpad to reach a new, mobile device-intensive audience.

Thanks to ebooks and Kickstarter, short fiction has a promising future. From being a moribund format to becoming the hot new thing, short fiction has rebounded with vigour that would be the envy of any zombie master. Here’s to new opportunities.

***

Gail Z. Martin's Days of the Dead blog tour runs through October 31 with never-before-seen cover art, brand new excerpts from upcoming books and recent short stories, interviews, guest blog posts, giveaways and more. Each article comes complete with extra excerpt links for stories and books by author friends of hers, plus a special 50% off discount from Double-Dragon ebooks, but just like Trick or Treat, you’ve got to visit the participating sites to get the goodies! Hit up AscendantKingdoms.com for all the details.

In the interim, enjoy an excerpt from her short story 'Buttons,' a bonus bit from her contribution to the Kickstarter-funded Athena’s Daughters anthology, and—last but not least—an excerpt from Jean Rabe's novel The Cauldron, also by way of Wattpad.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Book Review | The Voices by F. R. Tallis


In the scorching summer of 1976—the hottest since records began—Christopher Norton, his wife Laura and their young daughter Faye settle into their new home in north London. The faded glory of the Victorian house is the perfect place for Norton, a composer of film soundtracks, to build a recording studio of his own.

But soon in the long, oppressively hot nights, Laura begins to hear something through the crackle of the baby monitor. First, a knocking sound. Then come the voices...

***

Maybe you haven't heard of it—maybe you weren't born yet; maybe you're based elsewhere—but in Great Britain, the summer of 1976 went down in history. It was the hottest single season since records began some 400 years ago, and people in these parts weren't prepared. There were droughts. Deaths.

It was an indescribably violent time, all told. Hate crimes were a daily affair many commentators attributed to the incredible temperatures. "What a world to bring a child into," (p.1) as our couple comments on the first page of F. R. Tallis' haunting new novel. But that's exactly what Christopher and Laura Norton plan to do. Indeed, on the day they decide to spend their once-substantial savings on "a substantial Victorian edifice [...] concealed in a pocket of London's complex topography," (pp.1-2) their infant daughter is born. They name her Faye, meaning belief—which, though they have in her, they lack, alas, in one another.

A year later, the Nortons have settled into their new property nicely, but things between Faye's parents have gone to pot in short order, and a terror more malignant than the recent uptick in temperature is about to make its malevolent presence felt.

After The Sleep Room's success, it's a smart move on Tallis' part to focus in his new novel on another pseudo-scientific subject—in this instance Electronic Voice Phenomena. "It seemed a ludicrous idea, the dead communicating with the living through the medium of magnetic tape, but at the same time Christopher's mind was not entirely closed to extraordinary possibilities." (p.83) As an explanation for the voices he's been hearing recently—voices accidentally recorded in the course of composing the score for a forthcoming science fiction film—EVP isn't ideal, but it's the best of a bad lot... and rather that than face the fact that he might be losing his mind.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Book Review | Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz


Sherlock Holmes is dead.

Days after Holmes and his arch-enemy Moriarty fall to their doom at the Reichenbach Falls, Pinkerton agent Frederick Chase arrives in Europe from New York. The death of Moriarty has created a poisonous vacuum which has been swiftly filled by a fiendish new criminal mastermind who has risen to take his place.

Ably assisted by Inspector Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard, a devoted student of Holmes's methods of investigation and deduction, Frederick Chase must forge a path through the darkest corners of the capital to shine light on this shadowy figure, a man much feared but seldom seen, a man determined to engulf London in a tide of murder and menace.

The game is afoot...

***

The great detective and his greatest enemy are dead—or so it is said.

"After the confrontation that the world has come to know as 'The Final Problem,' [though] there was nothing final about it, as we now know," (p.4) Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty have absented their respective roles, each for his own secretive reasons. So what's Scotland Yard to do when London is rocked by a series of crimes so indescribably violent that they rival the Ripper's?

Why, hand over Holmes' role to Inspector Athelney Jones: a man, you might remember, much maligned by Dr Watson's depiction of him as a total dolt in 'The Sign of the Four.' Since then, however, Jones has "read everything that Mr Holmes has ever written. He has studied his methods and replicated his experiments. He has consulted with every inspector who ever worked with him. He has, in short, made Sherlock Holmes the very paradigm of his own life." (p.146)

And in our narrator, Frederick Chase—apparently the pick of Pinkerton's Detective Agency—Jones' Holmes has his Watson.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Book Review | The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins


The job of the skin is to keep things in…

On the buttoned-down island of Here, all is well. By which we mean: orderly, neat, contained and, moreover, beardless.

Or at least it is until one famous day, when Dave, bald but for a single hair, finds himself assailed by a terrifying, unstoppable… monster! Meaning: a gigantic, evil beard!

Where did it come from? How should the islanders deal with it? And what, most importantly, are they going to do with Dave?

***
Beneath the skin of everything is something nobody can know. The job of the skin is to keep it all in and never let anything show.
So begins The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil, award-winning cartoonist Stephen Collins' first graphic novel proper, and it is as dark and charming a parable as the poetry of its first panels portends.

The eventual originator of the evil beard is a drone called Dave. Not literally a drone, however his behaviours are practically mechanical. In that, Dave is not dissimilar to the other strangely hairless inhabitants of Here; like them, he lives in almost constant fear of There.

Happily, his job at A&C Industries occupies his thoughts during the day, and in his downtime, Dave draws. He draws the pedestrians that pass his house; he pencil sketches pets and post boxes; but by and large his subject is the street. "It was just so neat," you see. "So... complete."

Not such a remarkable fact, that, for "Here, every tree was perfect. Every street was perfect. Even the very shape of Here was perfect." Tellingly, the island bears a certain resemblance to an immense egg—and a delicate thing it is, protected by a shell only so strong.

It wouldn't take much to break it, basically, and the imagined mayhem of There is no more than a stone's throw from the coast:
The houses [Here] were rock-bottom cheap and showed windowless walls to the great dark deep for a very good reason. Because Here, the sea was a thing to fear. The sea led to There. There was disorder. There was chaos. There was evil.
Or so They say. Though "nobody had ever even been," really. "No one alive, anyway. The stories were enough for most people, including Dave." Like the one about the fisherman's son who stole a boat on a boast. "They said There took his tidiness away. Swallowed his boundaries whole. Mixed his [...] befores with his nows with his nexts." Thus the state of perpetual terror Dave and the other people who live Here exist in.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Book Review | TimeBomb by Scott K. Andrews


New York City, 2141: Yojana Patel throws herself off a skyscraper, but never hits the ground.

Cornwall, 1640: gentle young Dora Predennick, newly come to Sweetclover Hall to work, discovers a badly-burnt woman at the bottom of a flight of stairs. When she reaches out to comfort the dying woman, she's flung through time.

On a rainy night in present-day Cornwall: seventeen-year-old Kaz Cecka sneaks into the long-abandoned Sweetclover Hall, in search of a dry place to sleep. Instead he finds a frightened housemaid who believes Charles I is king and an angry girl who claims to come from the future.

Thrust into the centre of a war that spans millennia, Dora, Kaz and Jana must learn to harness powers they barely understand to escape not only villainous Lord Sweetclover but the forces of a fanatical army... all the while staying one step ahead of a mysterious woman known only as Quil.

***

Three teens from three times run rampant in 17th century Cornwall in the frenetic first volume of Scott K. Andrews' TimeBomb trilogy, a paradoxical romp which, whilst engaging and entertaining, promises a little more than it delivers.

To wit, TimeBomb begins quite brilliantly, with a fleeting glimpse of future New York: a sprawling city in which forty-storey superstructures are "dwarfed by the looming organic skytowns that twined sinuously up into the cloud base." (p.3) Here, we meet Yojana Patel, the determinedly independent daughter of... a powerful politician, I think?

We can't be certain because Andrews doesn't dally. In a matter of moments, rather than give her pursuers the satisfaction of catching her, Jana has thrown herself off the roof of a great skyscraper.

Death, in her day, is merely an inconvenience—she has a state-of-the-art board embedded in her head to that exact effect—but this particular passing doesn't happen as planned. Jana, in fact, never lands.
Instead, a second or two into her fall, she felt a tug upwards. Her first thought was that it was a freak gust of wind momentarily slowing her descent, but the tug increased. It felt as if the gravity that pulled her down was fighting an opposite force that wanted to pull her skywards. 
She opened her eyes and gasped. She was hovering in mid-air, surrounded by a halo of coruscating bright red sparks, like some kind of human firework. [...] Jana was so surprised by this that it took her a moment to realise that the world around her was darkening, as if a huge cloud was blocking out the sun. (pp.16-17)
In short, she goes into freefall—through time as opposed to space—before awakening, shaken, in the present day. Here, Jana joins forces with runaway called Kaz, who has been drawn almost inexorably towards Sweetclover Hall. As has Dora Predennick, a quiet Cornish lass from the past who, "in spite of all her natural meekness, humility and stay-at-home unadventurousness [...] was very formidable indeed when she was angry." (p.31) And having been forcibly transported over a time bridge, as she sees it, Dora's... pretty pissed.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Book Review | The End of the Sentence by Maria Dahvana Headley & Kat Howard


It begins with a letter from a prisoner...

As he attempts to rebuild his life in rural Oregon after a tragic accident, Malcolm Mays finds himself corresponding with Dusha Chuchonnyhoof, a mysterious entity who claims to be the owner of Malcolm's house, jailed unjustly for 117 years. The prisoner demands that Malcolm perform a gory, bewildering task for him. As the clock ticks toward Dusha's release, Malcolm must attempt to find out whether he's assisting a murderer or an innocent. The End of the Sentence combines Kalapuya, Welsh, Scottish and Norse mythology, with a dark imagined history of the hidden corners of the American West.

Maria Dahvana Headley and Kat Howard have forged a fairytale of ghosts and guilt, literary horror blended with the visuals of Jean Cocteau, failed executions, shapeshifting goblins, and magical blacksmithery. In Chuchonnyhoof, they've created a new kind of Beast, longing, centuries later, for Beauty.

***

In the aftermath of a tragic accident that made a mess of his marriage, Malcolm Mays retreats to rural Oregon in an attempt to begin again, however he gets more than he bargained for when he moves into a foreclosed home in Ione.

In a sense he inherits its former occupant, a convicted criminal called Dusha Chuchonnyhoof who—having been unjustly jailed for two lifetimes and a day, he says—is preparing to reclaim his property. "The homeowner is only absent, you must understand. Not gone. The end of the sentence approaches [...] and when it comes, I will return." (p.15)

This much Malcolm is made aware of—this much and no more, for the moment—through the letters that mysteriously appear in and around the house. Letters sent, evidently, from the nearby penitentiary, bidding him welcome... but how can that be when he hasn't announced his presence to anyone? Other letters are delivered later: missives urging our man to prepare the place for Chuchonnyhoof's homecoming... despite the fact that the felon in question has been dead for half a century.

Malcolm has no intention of doing what the letters advise, but, as if sensing his resistance, Chuchonnyhoof—or else the degenerate purporting to be Chuchonnyhoof—promises to make it worth his while. How? By bringing his lost boy back from the beyond. "If you do as I tell you to do, he will return when I do. If you do not," warns one of the murderer's many messages, "he will remain where you left him." (p.38)

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Book Review | Bête by Adam Roberts


It began when animal rights activists inserted AI chips in the brains of animals. The plan was to give animals speech. After all, if animals can talk we are bound to treat them more like us. A creature that can argue the case for its own intelligence, its own rights, is a much harder creature to use, to kill, surely.

But where does artificial intelligence end and the animal begin? With speech and self-awareness, have these canny animals also gained souls? Would we choose to believe them if they told us they had?

And would they forgive us?

***

Reading Adam Roberts is like participating in a literary lucky dip. It's a bit of a gamble, granted, but every one's a winner, and all of the prizes on offer are awesome.

Different sorts of awesome, I dare say. Always smart, and ever so sharp, but sometimes you get something scathing, and sometimes something sweet. Sometimes his stories are obscenely serious; sometimes they're ridiculously silly. Bête represents the best of both worlds—the coming together of all the aspects of Adam Roberts: the author, the professor and the satirist, alongside a number of others.

His fifteenth full-length fiction in fifteen years—including neither his punsome parodies nor his several collections—is a book about the rise of animals with intelligence to match man's, and it begins with a cutting conversation between a cattle farmer and the cow he had thought to slaughter.

"Won't you at least Turing-test me?" (p.11) it pleads as the bolt-gun is pressed against its head. One imagines many would, in that moment—indeed, making this beast into meat will be a matter of murder within weeks—but Graham Penhaligon is... somewhat set in his ways, shall we say. Also: a bit of a bastard. He pulls the trigger, a few pages later, in part because the cow—a farm animal made canny by activists with access to AI augmentations—makes the mistake of quoting a Morrissey song.
You dislike me for killing it. You're no vegetarian, though, hypocrite, reader, my image. My friend. You don't object to the killing as such. You object to my manner. When hunter-gatherers get angry it is hot and swift. When farmers get angry it is bone-deep and slow. (p.16)
And Graham, I'm afraid, has "spent decades perfecting anger as [his] being-in-the-world" (p.105)—so sayeth Cincinnatus the cat, a bête beloved by the cancer-ridden character our former farmer falls for in the novel's next section, which takes place fully five years after its provocative prologue. Brief and bleak as Graham's relationship with Anne is, it goes a long way toward humanising Roberts' immediately unappealing lead: a miserable man, as mean as he is maudlin, however he does, as it happens, have a heart.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Book Review | Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld


Darcy Patel has put college on hold to publish her teen novel, Afterworlds. With a contract in hand, she arrives in New York City with no apartment, no friends, and all the wrong clothes. But lucky for Darcy, she’s taken under the wings of other seasoned and fledgling writers who help her navigate the city and the world of writing and publishing. Over the course of a year, Darcy finishes her book, faces critique, and falls in love.

Woven into Darcy’s personal story is her novel, Afterworlds, a suspenseful thriller about a teen who slips into the “Afterworld” to survive a terrorist attack. The Afterworld is a place between the living and the dead, and where many unsolved—and terrifying—stories need to be reconciled. Like Darcy, Lizzie too falls in love... until a new threat resurfaces, and her special gifts may not be enough to protect those she cares about most.

***

As someone somewhen almost certainly said, the story is the thing... and it is, isn't it? Most readers read in order to know what happens next—to these characters or that narrative—rather than out of interest in much of anything outwith a given fiction; assuredly not the particular process of authors, though after Afterworlds, I've begun to wonder whether we mightn't be missing a trick.

A twofold story about storytelling, Scott Westerfeld's insightful new novel alternates between a pair of coming of age tales. In one, we meet Lizzie: a typical teenager, to begin with, who's too busy texting to notice the start of a terrorist attack:
I'd never heard an automatic weapon in real life before. It was somehow too loud for my ears to register, not so much a sound as the air ripping around me, a shudder I could feel in my bones and in the liquid of my eyes. I looked up from my phone and stared. 
The gunmen didn't look human. They wore horror movie masks, and smoke flowed around them as they swung their aim across the crowd. [...] I didn't hear the screams until the terrorists paused to reload. (pp.5-6)
Luckily, Lizzie comes to her senses eventually. As quietly as she can, she calls 911 as the bullets fly by. The operator on the other end of the telephone tells Lizzie her best bet is to play dead, and in lieu of a safer location, she does exactly that.

A touch too well, in truth, because she faints, and awakens in another world. There, in the land of the no longer living—a grayscale place where "the air [tastes] flat and metallic" (p.20)—she promptly falls for a foxy psychopomp:
These terrorists had tried to kill me but I'd gone to the land of the dead and now could see ghosts and apparently had acquired dangerous new powers and this boy, this boy had touched my fingertips—and they still tingled. (p.76)
In the aftermath of the attack, it beggars belief, a bit, that this boy is Lizzie's priority. Not the loss of so much life. Not her own nearness to nothing. Not even the realisation that she can move between worlds at will. Rather, Yamaraj, "a hot Vedic death god" (p.77) "modeled [...] on a Bollywood star" (p.121) by his faithless creator, debutant Darcy Patel.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Book Review | The Relic Guild by Edward Cox


It was said the Labyrinth had once been the great meeting place, a sprawling city at the heart of an endless maze where a million humans hosted the Houses of the Aelfir. The Aelfir who had brought trade and riches, and a future full of promise. But when the Thaumaturgists, overlords of human and Aelfir alike, went to war, everything was ruined and the Labyrinth became an abandoned forbidden zone, where humans were trapped behind boundary walls 100 feet high.



Now the Aelfir are a distant memory and the Thaumaturgists have faded into myth. Young Clara struggles to survive in a dangerous and dysfunctional city, where eyes are keen, nights are long, and the use of magic is punishable by death. She hides in the shadows, fearful that someone will discover she is touched by magic. She knows her days are numbered. But when a strange man named Fabian Moor returns to the Labyrinth, Clara learns that magic serves a higher purpose and that some myths are much more deadly in the flesh.

The only people Clara can trust are the Relic Guild, a secret band of magickers sworn to protect the Labyrinth. But the Relic Guild are now too few. To truly defeat their old nemesis Moor, mightier help will be required. To save the Labyrinth—and the lives of one million humans—Clara and the Relic Guild must find a way to contact the worlds beyond their walls.


***

The end result of more than a decade of obsessive endeavour, The Relic Guild by Edward Cox is the first part of a fine fantasy saga mixing gods and monsters that promises a lot, but delivers on too little to linger long after its last page.

Be that as it may, it's engrossing in the early-going, as the author thrusts us into the midst of a magical battle between Marney, an out-of-practice empath; a goodly number of golems in service of someone called Fabian Moor: an evil Genii determined to bring his banished master back from the blackest corners of beyond; and Old Man Sam, a bounty hunter unburdened by the little things in life, like what's right.

The good, the bad and the ugly are all searching for the same thing, in this instance: a girl called Peppercorn Clara. "Barely eighteen, she was a whore rumoured to have a libido as spicy as it was insatiable. The story was that [she] had killed a client halfway through a job." (p.7) Needless to say, this is a fabrication. Clara's only crime is that she's different from most of the million mere mortals who live in Labrys Town, being the first magical being born within its walls in a generation.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Book Review | The Infinite Sea by Rick Yancey


How do you rid the Earth of seven billion humans? Rid the humans of their humanity.

Surviving the first four waves was nearly impossible. Now Cassie Sullivan finds herself in a new world, a world in which the fundamental trust that binds us together is gone. As the 5th Wave rolls across the landscape, Cassie, Ben, and Ringer are forced to confront the Others’ ultimate goal: the extermination of the human race.

Cassie and her friends haven’t seen the depths to which the Others will sink, nor have the Others seen the heights to which humanity will rise, in the ultimate battle between life and death, hope and despair, love and hate.

***

Following the first phases of the invasion revealed in Rick Yancey's breakthrough book, the world of The 5th Wave "is a clock winding down," (p.1) with each tick of which, and every tock, what little hope there is left is lost.

No one knows exactly how long the last remnants of humanity have, but they're looking at a matter of months, at most... unless someone, somewhere, can conceive of a means of driving the aliens away—aliens who, as the big bad of the series says, have nowhere else to go.

"You've lost your home," Vosch asks The Infinite Sea's central character—not Cassie, as it happens—to imagine. "And the lovely one—the only one—that you've found to replace it is infested with vermin. What can you do? What are your choices? Resign yourself to live peaceably with the destructive pests or exterminate them before they can destroy your new home?" (p.201)

Friday, 19 September 2014

Book Review | The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell


One drowsy summer's day in 1984, teenage runaway Holly Sykes encounters a strange woman who offers a small kindness in exchange for asylum. Decades will pass before Holly understands exactly what sort of asylum the woman was seeking...

The Bone Clocks follows the twists and turns of Holly's life from a scarred adolescence in Gravesend to old age on Ireland's Atlantic coast as Europe's oil supply dries up—a life not so far out of the ordinary, yet punctuated by flashes of precognition, visits from people who emerge from thin air and brief lapses in the laws of reality. For Holly Sykes—daughter, sister, mother, guardian—is also an unwitting player in a murderous feud played out in the shadows and margins of our world, and may prove to be its decisive weapon.

***

An exquisite exploration of the beauty and the tragedy of mortality, The Bone Clocks is a soaring supernatural sextet split into sections carefully arranged around the novel's initial narrator.

A baby-faced runaway when we meet in the mid-eighties, Holly Sykes has become a wistful old woman by the book's conclusion in the year 2043. Between times David Mitchell depicts her diversely: as a friend and a lover; a wife and a mother; a victim and a survivor; and more, of course, as the decades prance past. The Bone Clocks is, in short, the story of Holly Sykes' life: a life less ordinary that leads her—as if by the whims of some Script—into the midst of a macabre conflict between eternal enemies fought in the farthest fringes of existence.

But that doesn't happen until the last act. In the beginning, Holly is no more and no less than a normal girl in a normal world with normal problems—like the backstabbing boyfriend she left the nest to take up with. Too proud to crawl back to her family after a screaming match with her Mam, Holly hightails it as far away from home as her aching feet can take her—pretty much to prove a point:
Six days should do it. The police only get interested in missing teenagers once a week's up. Six days'll show Mam I can look after myself in the big bad world. I'll be in a stronger, whatchercallit, a stronger negotiating position. And I'll do it on my own, without a Brubeck to get all boyfriendish on me. (p.40)
Even as a teenager, Holly's pretty together, so she manages to make ends meet in the interim. Furthermore, she finds a few ways to extend her experimental independence... if not indefinitely, since the Script we learn about later has other plans for our protagonist.