Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Book Review | The Outsorcerer's Apprentice by Tom Holt

A happy workforce, it is said, is a productive workforce.

Try telling that to an army of belligerent goblins. Or the Big Bad Wolf. Or a professional dragons layer. Who is looking after their well-being? Who gives a damn about their intolerable working conditions, lack of adequate health insurance, and terrible coffee in the canteen?

Thankfully, with access to an astonishingly diverse workforce and limitless natural resources, maximizing revenue and improving operating profit has never really been an issue for the one they call "the Wizard." Until now.

Because now a perfectly good business model—based on sound fiscal planning, entrepreneurial flair, and only one or two of the infinite parallel worlds that make up our universe—is about to be disrupted by a young man not entirely aware of what's going on.

There's also a slight risk that the fabric of reality will be torn to shreds. You really do have to be awfully careful with these things.


An affectionate send-up of the fairytale from the author of such sarcastic tracts as Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages and May Contain Traces of MagicThe Outsorcerer's Apprentice features overlords and underlings, self-aware wolves and woodcutters, plus a prince from another world: ours.

Benny isn't a prince of anything hereabouts, however. Point of fact, he's in a bit of a pickle when the book begins. He has his final exams at Uni in a few weeks, and with his whole future before him, all of a sudden he doesn't have a clue what he's been doing. Studying to be a mathematician, maybe? In a moment of inspiration that some might mistake for laziness, he realises what he really needs is a good, long break to take stock of his situation. To that end, he borrows his Uncle's "omniphasic Multiverse portal" (p.137) and travels to a parallel reality where he can pretend to be a powerful person, because of course. Wouldn't you if you could?
The YouSpace XP3000, designed by Professor Pieter van Goyen of Leiden [is] capable of transporting you to any or all of the alternate realities that make up the Multiverse. Intuitive targeting software and state-of-the-art Heisenberg compensators mean that all you have to do is think of where you'd like to go, and you're instantly there. It's as simple as that. 
All you'll need to operate your YouSpace XP3000 personal multiverse interface is a dream—and a doughnut. (pp.136-137)
What Benny—pardon me, Prince Florizel—doesn't yet get, and won't for quite a while, is that his very presence in this innocent kingdom is destined to affect its host of fantastic inhabitants, including, but not limited to, dwarves, dragons, goblins, elves, etc.

Readers come to this conclusion somewhat sooner than fair Florizel; by way of Buttercup, a wily woodcutter's daughter waylaid with increasing frequency by wolves wearing old ladies' clothes. She grows so sick and tired of their charade that she starts worrying she may be single-handedly endangering the population—because of course Buttercup kills all the animals that attack her. She's had a lot of practice, and they'd eat her otherwise.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Press Release Your Luck | Imagining the Truth

With the British Genre Fiction Focus on hiatus over the holidays, and most of the kids I teach in real life relaxing anywhere other than the education centre that employs me, I've had a fair bit of time to play with, lately. I don't want to tell you yet what I've been doing with it yet—I just don't want to jinx the thing before it's finished—but suffice to say this project has been as much of a time-suck as the columns I curate for Tor.com.

Long story short, I've been neglecting my inbox for a bit, so I spent a few hours picking through it this morning, in the course of which I came across a recent press release from the Institute of Art and Ideas, informing me of an event in which Jasper Fforde and Adam Robots—I mean, ah, Roberts—joined forces with Leaving Las Vegas director Mike Figgis to ask and answer questions about the imagination.

This is the pitch:
We believe reason is our best tool for acquiring true knowledge of the world. But Picasso said "art is a lie that tells the truth," and many others before him have made similar claims. Are they right? Can imagination lead us to truths hidden from the rational mind, or is this romantic hogwash?
And this is the video:

It's worth a watch.

If the embed above isn't working... well. That'd be because Blogger is being a bother. But what can it do to disrupt an old-fashioned link like this?

Now I'll be knee-deep in seekrits for the foreseeable, but I do solemnly swear to keep a closer eye on my inbox going forward, so if anyone needs me, that's how to make the magic happen.

Toodles for the time being!

Friday, 25 July 2014

Guest Post | "Why Read Sci-Fi and Fantasy?" by Anna Caltabiano

“I just don’t do fantasy.”

That is a sentence I’ve heard more than once in various libraries and bookstores. I understand that people have their preferences, but I never understood why some people are so quick to shun fantasy and sci-fi past the age of twelve. In my opinion, that’s when it really gets good, because we develop a better understanding of what we read.

For the same reason many adults (and a few very serious teenagers) don’t read fiction, many people find fantasy and sci-fi to be simply a distraction, and therefore not worth reading. As a writer, but also as a reader of all sorts of fiction—sci-fi and fantasy included—I find this to be heartbreaking. I find that these novels often aren’t given the credit they deserve. 

“Why read fantasy or sci-fi?” That’s a fair question. Some people read it because they’re looking for an escape from their everyday lives, but others, like me, read sci-fi fantasy to better examine the world they live in.

I find that some of the best sci-fi and fantasy books I’ve ever read take place in worlds that look almost exactly like ours, except with one major difference—a single change that effects and alters the fictional world and the way people interact with their world and each other. Parallel universes, time travel, immortality... these are all small changes that effect everything. These seemingly minute changes magnify certain elements in our world: parallel universes speak to our desire to make different choices and explore their consequences, time travel connects us to our past and future, and addresses the eternal question of “What if I could do it over again?”, while immortality speaks to our collective fear of death and the meaning that it gives to our lives.

Fantasy and sci-fi genres are vehicles for us to look at our own world in a different light. Nonfiction can be helpful, but it can’t allow us to live new experiences. Realistic fiction does many things, but rarely triggers our minds to question the daily assumptions through which we live our lives. Good sci-fi and fantasy frees us to float to other worlds and other times, and while seemingly being disconnected from our daily lives, bring us back inside ourselves, permitting a new found understanding of who we are and what we believe.


Having been born in British colonial Hong Kong and educated in Mandarin Chinese schools before moving to Palo Alto, California—the mecca of futurism—Anna Caltabiano is a child of the transnational cyber punk era. She's seventeen years old and already the author of two novels: All That is Red and The Seventh Miss Hatfield. You can find out more about her and her work on her website, or follow the author on Twitter @caltabiano_anna.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Book Review | The Causal Angel by Hannu Rajaniemi

Alone on a timeless beach, Josephine Pellegrini find herself disappointed by the end of the world.

The sun is almost down, an orange flare just beyond the edge of the calm expanse of the sea. The globe of Earth hangs in the sky. There are dark tendrils chasing each other in the white and blue, spreading like spilled ink. Matjek Chen's Dragons, turning matter and energy and information into themselves. Soon they will burrow into the crust of the dying world.

And when the world has died? Josephine will turn her attention to the tools that have failed her. To the traitorous Mieli and to the thief who betrayer her: Jean le Flambeur.

With his infectious love of storytelling in all its forms, his rich characterisation and his unrivalled grasp of thrillingly bizarre cutting-edge science, Hannu Rajaniemi has swiftly set a new benchmark for SF in the 21st century. He has told the story of the many lives, and minds, of the gentleman rogue Jean le Flambeur.

Influenced as much by the fin de siecle novels of Maurice le Blanc as he is by the greats of SF, Rajaniemi has woven intricate, warm capers through dazzling science, extraordinary visions of a wild future, and deep conjectures on the nature of reality and story. And now it's time to learn the final fates of Jean, Mieli and all mankind...


The finale of the stellar science fiction saga that The Quantum Thief kicked off begins days after the devastating denouement of The Fractal Prince, with Jean le Flambeur, the trilogy's fin de siecle frontman, finally free, if crestfallen after the abject failure of his latest caper. His partner in crime, meanwhile, finds herself in terrible peril, in part because of the last act of her sentient spidership Perhonen:
When a Sobornost hunter attacked us, the ship tried to save Mieli by shooting her into space. I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time. [...] The problem is that Mieli served the Sobornost for two decades and carries a Founder gogol in her head. There are too many forces in the system that was access to that kind of information, especially now. For example, the Great Game Zoku, the zoku intelligence arm. They might be nice about it, but when they find her, they are going to peel her mind open like an orange. The pellegrinis, the vasilevs, the hsien-kus or the chens will be less polite. Let alone the mercenary company she infiltrated and betrayed on Earth. (pp.10-11)

The Causal Angel is as daunting a novel as this early excerpt suggests, requiring from its readers such deliberate committment that those who come to their fiction for fun—though there is some—would be best to leave this baby be. Accessible it ain't, I'm afraid. What it is is brilliant: far more focused than the books before it, and as fulfilling, finally, as it is difficult.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Book Review | The Spectral Link by Thomas Ligotti

Throughout Thomas Ligotti's career as a horror writer, many of his stories have evolved from physical or emotional crises. And so it was with the surgical trauma that led to the stories in The Spectral Link, an event that is marginally mentioned in the first of these stories, 'Metaphysica Morum.' In the second, 'The Small People,' Ligotti returns, although not precisely in the usual fashion, to his fixation with uncanny representations of the so-called human being. Having nearly ceased to exist as he lay on the surgeon's table, the imposing strangeness of the nature and vicissitudes of this life form once again arose in his imagination.

So what project and publications are forthcoming from Thomas Ligotti? As ever, not even he knows.


An anachronism in an age when authors are expected to be out there, selling themselves every second, Thomas Ligotti has never been particularly prolific, however he did, for a period of years, publish new short stories on a semi-regular schedule, every one of which represented an event among enthusiasts of his existential efforts.

Then, a decade or so ago, Ligotti was laid up with a crippling case of writer's block. Perniciously, this persisted until 2012, when a near-death experience moved him to pick up his pen again. The Spectral Link is the result: a slender collection of novelettes that is no less essential for its relative brevity.

In 'Metaphysica Morum,' the descendent of "degenerate swamp dwellers" (p.40) documents his desire to die. Feeling left behind in life, and utterly unable to relate to reality, our unnamed narrator dreams of release, but cannot bring himself to do the deed.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Book Review | The Child Eater by Rachel Pollack

On Earth, the Wisdom family has always striven to be more normal than normal. But Simon Wisdom, the youngest child, is far from normal: he can see the souls of the dead. And now the ghosts of children are begging him to help them, as they face something worse than death. The only problem is, he doesn't know how.

In a far-away land of magic and legends, Matyas has dragged himself up from the gutter and inveigled his way into the Wizards' college. In time, he will become more powerful than all of them—but will his quest blind him to the needs of others? For Matyas can also hear the children crying.

But neither can save the children alone, for the child eater is preying on two worlds...


Representing Rachel Pollack's first original genre novel since Godmother Night in 1996—a World Fantasy Award winner in its day, and a classic now, by all accounts—the release of The Child Eater is bound to be a big deal in certain circles. How her returning readers respond to it remains to be seen; this was my first of her works, I'm afraid... but not likely my last.

Based on a pair of tales from The Tarot of Perfection, Pollack's last collection, The Child Eater tells two separate yet connected stories. Separate in that the boys we follow are worlds apart, and divided in time, too; connected, though neither knows it, by the parts they're fated to play in the downfall of the eponymous monster: an immortal man wicked in the ways you'd expect, not least because of the innocents he eats.

Matyas, when we meet him, is a slave to his parents, the proprietors of The Hungry Squirrel, a "dismal wood building on a dismal road that ran from the sea to the capital. Most of the inn's business came from travellers on their way from the port to the city, or the other way around. Sometimes, with the wealthier ones in their private carriages, Matyas saw the faces screw up in distaste, and then they would sigh, knowing they had no choice." (p.1) Likewise dissatisfied with his lot in life, he follows one such weary wanderer to a forest far from his home, where he sees something he can hardly believe: the man—a magician, he must be—shooting the shit with a head on a stick.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Coming Attractions | Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Lavie Tidhar has it that Benjanun Sriduangkaew is amongst "the most exciting new voices in speculative fiction today," and readers? I don't disagree. I've only read a few of her short stories—'Fade to Gold' in End of the Road and 'Silent Bridge, Pale Cascade' in Clarkesworld Magazine—but both have been (excuse the hyperbole here) mindblowing.

To wit, I met the news of her new novella—her first, unless I'm very much mistaken—with more than a mite of excitement. Due out sometime this month from the fine folks at Immersion Press, Scale-Bright is "a contemporary fantasy" narrative blending "Chinese myth, interstitial cities, and the difficulties of being mortal and ordinary when everyone around you has stepped out of legends."

Here's the wonderful Richard Wagner cover, in all its high resolution loveliness:

I've got a blurb for the book, to boot. Behold!
Julienne’s aunts are the archer who shot down the suns and the woman who lives on the moon. They teach her that there’s more to the city of her birth than meets the eye—that beneath the modern chrome and glass of Hong Kong there are demons, gods, and the seethe of ancient feuds. As a mortal Julienne is to give them wide berth, for unlike her divine aunts she is painfully vulnerable, and choice prey for any demon.
Until one day, she comes across a wounded, bleeding woman no one else can see, and is drawn into an old, old story of love, snake women, and the deathless monk who hunts them.
If, like me, you can't contain your anticipation, check out these three free short stories—'Chang'e Dashes from the Moon''Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon' and 'The Crows Her Dragon's Gate'—all of which "provide further background to the mythological grounding of Scale-Bright." And then get your orders in, alright?

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Bargain Books | Speculative Fiction for Free

I don't know why, exactly, but whatever the impetus is, the effect is excellent: if you haven't already bought copies of Speculative Fiction 2012 and Speculative Fiction 2013, Jurassic London's exemplary collections of the best online reviews, commentaries and essays—both of which I'm honoured to be included in—for a limited time you can grab the digital editions from Amazon for nada.

But be quick about it, my pretties! Through today and tomorrow, both volumes of the Hugo- and British Fantasy Award-nominated anthology are completely free, but they'll be back at their usual price before you know it.

Then again, with every penny of the proceeds going to Room to Read, it might actually be better, ethically, to wait till you can put a few pounds down...

Monday, 14 July 2014

Book Review | The Garden of Darkness by Gillian Murray Kendall

Their families dead from the pandemic SitkaAZ13, known as “Pest,” 15-year-old cheerleader Clare and 13-year-old chess club member Jem, an unlikely pair, are thrown together and realize that, if either of them wishes to reach adulthood, they must find a cure. A shadowy adult broadcasting on the radio to all orphaned children promises just that—to cure children once they grow into Pest, then to feed them and to care for them.

Or does this adult have something else in mind? 

Against a hostile landscape of rotting cities and of a countryside infected by corpses and roamed by voracious diseased survivors, Jem and Clare make their bid for life and, with their group of fellow child-travelers growing, embark on a journey to find the cure. They are hampered by the knowledge that everything in this new child-led world has become suspect—adults, alliances, trust, hope. But perhaps friendship has its own kind of healing power. 


A teenage take on The Walking Dead blissfully free from that franchise's most mercenary elements, The Garden of Darkness is an astonishingly good debut about a cheerleader and a chess club member's struggle to survive absent adults in a landscape ravaged by the Pest pandemic.

Though they went to school together way back when, the odd couple we quickly come to care about only really meet a matter of months after Pest lays waste to the world as we know it, killing all the afflicted adults and sentencing every single survivor to death at the onset of adolescence:
Clare knew she was infected with Pest—the rash was enough to prove that. She knew that she was going to die of it, too. Eventually. She might even have a couple of years left, but, according to the scientists, she wasn't going to live to adulthood. [...] In its own weird way, Clare thought the link between Pest and adolescence sounded logical. Adolescence had always been a bag of goodies: complexion problems, mood swings, unrequited love and now, Pest. (p.17)

Friday, 11 July 2014

Book Review | Touched by Joanna Briscoe

Rowena Crale and her family have moved from London. They now live in a small English village in a cottage which seems to be resisting all attempts at renovation. Walls ooze damp, stains come through layers of wallpaper, celings sag, and strange noises—voices—emanate from empty rooms.

As Rowena struggles with the upheaval of builders while trying to be a dutiful wife and a good mother to her young children, her life starts to disintegrate.

And then, one by one, her daughters go missing...


From the author of a selection of elegant bestsellers, not least the sensational Sleep With Me, comes a creepy period piece, positively drenched in dread, that documents an old-fashioned family’s decision to leave London for a crumbling cottage in the countryside.

For Rowena, mother and matriarch of the many and various Crales—including her dullard of a husband Douglas—the move is meant to demarcate a break from the bland patterns of the past, but from the first, the house seems set on rejecting its new tenants. A retaining wall can’t be broken through; a damp problem proves impossibly pervasive; and in the interim, “an impression she couldn’t pin down, that the house was already inhabited [...] overlaid with memories of all the years her mother-in-law had lived there,” (p11) eats away at Rowena.

It’ll be worth all the blood and sweat in the end, she tells herself. But that’s before her daughters start disappearing...
Numbers 2 and 3 The Farings were postcard cottages, age-softened and settled, with their deep-set windows and boxes of geraniums, their uneven floors and cool pantries, their small gardens tangles of mature flowers and shrubbery. The modern house in London had contained no soul, and little opportunity for her decorating dreams; The Farings, by contrast, possessed so much character, she found it hard to believe there weren’t other people there. That was why she was faintly nervy, she realised, imagining movement in other rooms, because it simply didn’t seem as though it was theirs yet. (p.29)
Initially, Rowena dismisses these feelings, insisting “it was her mind playing tricks, and she turned it off like a light switch,” (p.20) but they persist—and soon it seems one of her children is sensitive to them too. “This was Evangeline, who was dressed as a Victorian and had rain for hair. [...] She guttered in the others’ shining, blanked out by their shadows. Where the other Crales were clean with health and Jennifer was doll-beautiful, Evangeline was a grubby, transparent girl, dragging her feet and slipping away,” (p.6) quite literally latterly:
To explain the nature of Evangeline was difficult. Was she a backwards child? [...] Was she handicapped? A candidate for electroshock treatment? Evangeline did not fit easily into any category, and yet she was considered mentally subnormal by those who saw her slipping, murmuring, sliding through the village in her ghost frocks. The villagers had plenty to say to the police about Miss Evangeline Crale. (p.131)
But it’s as if she isn’t missed, in that no one other than Rowena really takes her disappearance seriously—and even she waits a few weeks before going to the police. It’s a whole other story when beautiful Jennifer follows in her inexplicable sister’s footsteps. Questions are asked and investigations urgently undertaken. The Pollards in particular are considered suspicious, but they’re practically friends of the family. They wouldn’t have hurt the girls, would they?

The trauma of all this turmoil is the ruination of Rowena. Her “dreams, already shattered, were irretrievable: it was the nightmare now that she fought.” (p.193) A nightmare that lives in The Farings with the remaining Crales...

Touched is a terrific little ghost story, to be sure—an exemplar of the short, smart shocks of horror Hammer-branded books have represented in recent years—but the narrative is not what makes it so special. Though it’s well handled on the whole, and very prettily written—Joanna Briscoe’s prose proved an unexpected pleasure—the twist the tale takes in its later stages is too transparently telegraphed to satisfy in the final summation, and there’s some unfortunate redundancy in the remainder.

Instead, what sets Touched apart are its central characters. Rowena is a brow-beaten broodmare—all too familiar a figure in Britain in the fifties and sixties—invested with such a sense of nervous energy that her eventual unravelling is essentially inevitable. Add to that unreliable protagonist a fantastic focal point for her frenzies in Evangeline, whose secret life—out of sight and out of mind—is superlatively rendered. 

Evangeline’s supposed disability is also deftly depicted, reflected as it is—if it is—by the harried or horrid reactions of others around her rather than her own entirely innocent idiosyncrasies:
Adults customarily shrank from her, ignored her, or addressed her like a simpleton. At her primary school, they had tied her to her chair to keep her in lessons, then tied her to another at lunch; but largely, she was allowed to disappear, and if people didn’t want her, such absences were her preference. (p.40)
It’s just a shame Evangeline is herself absent for such a large part of the narrative. Truth is, Touched is a touch less stimulating when she’s missing.

In a fascinating afterword, the author asserts that her “characters are all haunted by their pasts, their mistakes, their longings; pursued by guilt and desire so strong, it could infiltrate a life,” (p.242) and that’s clearly the case here, allowing anyone a way into Touched. To wit, this is an eminently accessible text, bolstered by a exquisitely composed story, but what makes it remarkable at the last is its juxtaposition of the genre’s foremost tropes—such as “houses in rebellion, secret rooms, figures glimpsed obliquely [and] unexplained smells” (ibid.)—with evils revealed to be markedly more mundane in nature.


by Joanna Briscoe

UK Publication: July 2014, Hammer Horror

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

Or get the Kindle edition

Recommended and Related Reading

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Book Review | Barricade by Jon Wallace

A fast-paced, droll and disturbing novel, Barricade is a savage road trip across the dystopian landscape of post-apocalypse Britain narrated by the cold-blooded yet magnetic antihero, Kenstibec.

Kenstibec is a member of the Ficial race: a breed of merciless super-humans. Their war on humanity has left Britain a wasteland, where Ficials hide in barricaded cities, besieged by tribes of human survivors. Originally optimised for construction, Kenstibec earns his keep as a taxi driver, running any Ficial who will pay from one surrounded city to another.

The trips are always eventful, but this will be his toughest yet. His fare is a narcissistic journalist who's touchy about her luggage. His human guide is constantly plotting to kill him. And that's just the start of his troubles.

On his journey he encounters ten-foot killer rats, a mutant king with a TV fixation, a drug-crazed army, and even the creator of the Ficial race. He also finds time to uncover a terrible plot to destroy his species for good—and humanity too.


Battlestar Galactica meets Mad Max in a dystopian debut that doesn't disappoint: a bona fide barnstormer of a book about a dysfunctional future in which people are a problem our genetically engineered successors have almost solved.

In the first, the Ficials were created to help humanity. To do our dirty work—to serve and slave and slog and so on—thus they were bred to be better. Some have superhuman strength, others endless endurance; many are exceptionally intelligent, most are massively attractive. None of them have a heart, however. Pesky emotions would only have distracted them from their duties.

What could possibly have gone wrong?

Only everything. Years before Barricade begins, the Ficials struck back against their masters... but not out anger. Rather, reason:
"Control was built as an incorruptible arbiter, a trustworthy leader."
"The thing is homicidal!"
"No, it is rational. It looked at the situation, concluded that it wasn't possible to save both our race and the planet, and presented its case to the Engineered race. They were convinced by its logic and started the cull." (p.151)
The cull: a plan to solve the planet's people problem, by ridding it of Reals completely. Brutal, to be sure, but brilliant in its simplicity. Sadly—for the Ficials, that is... if they had feelings, which they don't—humanity had other ideas. Millions did die, but many of us survived, by hiding in the countryside whilst our stymied successors settled in the cities; by erecting great barricades to make life difficult for the Ficials.

Things have been at something of a standstill since; a sustained state of stalemate neither side is able to break. Not easily, at least. But there are those who dare to dream. Who dare, indeed, to drive. Kenstibec, a Ficial made to make—a construction model—has earned himself a reputation by chaperoning clients from city to city in that exact fashion.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Book Review | Ajax Penumbra 1969 by Robin Sloan

San Francisco, 1969. The summer of drugs, music and a new age dawning. A young, earnest Ajax Penumbra has been given his first assignment as a Junior Acquisitions Officer - to find the single surviving copy of the Techne Tycheon, a mysterious volume that has brought and lost great fortune for anyone who has owned it. After a few weeks of rigorous hunting, Penumbra feels no closer to his goal than when he started. But late one night, after another day of dispiriting dead ends, he stumbles upon a 24-hour bookstore and the possibilities before him expand exponentially. With the help of his friend's homemade computer, an ancient map, a sunken ship and the vast shelves of the 24-hour bookstore, Ajax Penumbra might just find what he's seeking...


Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore was, without question, one of last year's most endearing debuts. A short novel about a tech-savvy shop assistant drawn inexorably into what is a magnificent mystery, at least initially, Robin Sloan's fontastic fantasy began brilliantly, before revealing itself to be a book about the absolute good of Google—and as I concluded in my review, "that's not what I come to my speculative fiction for, frankly."

Happily, this brief prequel isn't half as distracted as the originating fiction, in large part because it's set in the sixties: in 1969, specifically, during the last days of the Summer of Love.

But that's not what motivates our narrator. That's not why he's travelled to San Francisco. As one of his accomplices allows, "drugs, music, a new age dawning... and you came for an old book." (p.39)

A Junior Acquisitions Officer for the Occult Literature Department of the library of a college known as "the Harvard of Northwestern Illinois," (p.10) young Ajax Penumbra is blessed with a quest, outlined here in an effective second-person address:
You learn that the Tycheon—as it is more casually know to the approximately three people alive who care about its existence—did not enjoy a large print run, but the few copies that ever existed made quite an impression. It is, apparently, a book of prophecy, and Brindle's file is full of suggestive scraps. In 1511, a merchant in Liverpool extolls its virtues. Almost a century later, in 1601, a fortune-teller in London cannot work without it. The fortune-teller's apprentice praises the Tycheon just as effusively, but apparently misses an important prediction; he is murdered in 1657. The trail goes red, and cold. Your quest begins. (p.17)
Penumbra's investigations soon lead him to San Francisco, where he hopes to locate the last known owner of The Craft of Fortune. Sadly, he finds no trace of William Gray.

As a last resort, he asks around in an array of likely locations, including the 24-Hour Bookstore a Mr Mohammed Al-Asmari mans. Here, he shares his story, only to be told by the owner that this William Gray isn't an individual at all—it's a ship, long since sunk in an area of the Bay that has lately been reclaimed.
He walks the city, dispirited. It is something, he tells himself, to have determined the fate of the William Gray and the book he sought there. But it is still a failure. His first assignment as a Junior Acquisitions Officer, and it came to nothing. 
Carol Janssen found the Book of Dreams in a remote Peruvian village. Another acquisitions officer, Julian Lemire, pulled the diary of Nebuchadnezzar II out of an active volcano. Langston Armitage himself has traveled to Antarctica twice. Now, Penumbra has come so close to his own prize, and yet it is beyond his reach. A whole city blocks his way." (p.29)
There are glimmers of hope, however: tunnels have been dug under the city to make way for the BART, which is to say San Francisco's revolutionary rapid transit system. If one of these is near the rotten wreck of the ship, and if Penumbra can access it somehow, then perhaps... perhaps there's a chance. Assuming the book isn't already ruined. That's a lot of ifs, admittedly, but our man means to make sure.

Readers, I'm relieved to report that Ajax Penumbra 1969 is a delight. It might well be more satisfying than the book it introduces, and the fact that it's substantially shorter is one of the secrets of its success. At a hundred pages at a push in Atlantic's handsome new hardcover, and only then including several appendixes—namely an interview with the author and the first chapter of Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour BookstoreAjax Penumbra 1969 is never in danger of overstaying its welcome, nor are there any of the pointless packing peanuts of plot that proved such a problem in the author's other novel.

It's a far tighter text than Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore, all told, and it follows that this focus leaves little room for the extended digressions that distracted in Sloan's debut. Crucially, Google hasn't happened yet, and though one subplot involves an early attempt at networking—"using a computer is just not a thing that a person does" (p.12) in 1969, but never mind—even this section serves a pair of purposes, adding as it does to our understanding of Sloan's central character, as well as laying the groundwork for his future fascinations.

Ajax Penumbra 1969 boasts a narrative never less than neat, a spectacularly rendered setting and another array of charming characters—oh, Mo! I enjoyed your company so—all the while maintaining a markedly better balance between what's plot and what's not than evidenced in its predecessor. What we have here is a perfectly pleasant prequel to one of last year's most promising novels that reminded me of the reasons I was so sweet on said. I can only hope Sloan has more such stories in store.


Ajax Penumbra 1969
by Robin Sloan

UK Publication: June 2014, Atlantic
US Publication: September 2013, FSG

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Friday, 4 July 2014

Book Review | Rogues, ed. George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois

If you’re a fan of fiction that is more than just black and white, this latest story collection from #1 New York Times bestselling author George R. R. Martin and award-winning editor Gardner Dozois is filled with subtle shades of gray. Twenty-one all-original stories, by an all-star list of contributors, will delight and astonish you in equal measure with their cunning twists and dazzling reversals. And George R. R. Martin himself offers a brand-new A Game of Thrones tale chronicling one of the biggest rogues in the entire history of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Follow along with the likes of Gillian Flynn, Joe Abercrombie, Neil Gaiman, Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch, Cherie Priest, Garth Nix, and Connie Willis, as well as other masters of literary sleight-of-hand, in this rogues gallery of stories that will plunder your heart—and yet leave you all the richer for it.


Give genre fiction fans a fat fantasy novel each and they'll read for a week. Give 'em an anthology edited by George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois and they could be rolling in stories forever more.

Rogues is the latest in a long line of collaborations by the pair, and like Warriors and Dangerous Women, it represents a commingling of forms of fiction. Fitting insofar as the rogue is "a character archetype that cuts across all mediums and genres," (p.xii) as the author of A Song of Ice and Fire asserts in his introduction, thus the fantasy narratives forecast are accompanied by stories of historical heroics, replete with romance, ghosts and gunslinging. Which is to say there are Westerns as well, in addition to efforts emblematic of a small army of other categories, including horror, mystery and the mainstream. Herein, expect to see science fiction rubbing shoulders with the traditional thriller.

In that regard, Rogues is rather a throwback.

As a matter of fact, Martin begins the book by looking to his youth. In 'Everybody Loves a Rogue,' he reflects on the good old days when "everything was jammed in together, a copy of this, two copies of that. You might find The Brothers Karamazov sandwiched between a nurse novel and the latest Mike Hammer yarn." (p.xv) "I liked it that way," he goes on to say:
I still do. But in the decades since [...] publishing has changed, chain bookstores have multiplied, the genre barriers have hardened. I think that's a pity. Books should broaden us, take us to place we have never been and show us things we've never seen, expand our horizons and our way of looking at the world. Limiting your reading to single genre defeats that. It limits us, makes us smaller. It seemed to me, then as now, that there were good stories and bad stories, and that was the only distinction that truly mattered. 
We think we have some good one heres. (p.xv)
And we do, to be sure.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Guest Post | "Ghost Writer" by Joanna Briscoe

My novels are all haunted, but I was the last to know it. 

Luckily, others were more astute, and I was asked by Arrow to write a novella for their Hammer imprint—a collaboration between Hammer Films and Random House publishers that has resulted in some of the most interesting short novels of the last few years. I loved Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate and Helen Dunmore’s The Great Coat, but when I was commissioned to write a novel with a supernatural aspect, I hadn’t read them, or any other adult ghost novel apart from The Turn of the Screw.

Or I thought I hadn’t. When I stop to think about some of my favourite literature—AS Byatt’s Possession; Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Rebecca; Jane Eyre—they are all pursued by ghosts in one way or another. And even more strangely, when I think about my own work, it is deeply haunted... While I was imagining howling apparitions in sheets, hauntings of a more subtle nature were staring me in the face. 

So in my first novel, Mothers and Other Lovers—which was in so many senses a classic rights-of-passage, semi-autobiographical first novel—I had plenty of ghosts to lay to rest! I think I had needed to look at childhood and my relationship with my mother, and how that had impacted on somewhat disastrous love life choices of that time... This is probably strictly the least haunted of my novels, but it was definitely about dealing with my demons. Several of them. Of course, straightforward autobiography rarely works as fiction, so it was a story, an invention, but I could never deny the true-to-life tale that had to get out.

My second, Skin, is the most shocking and in many ways worrying of my novels. It features a woman who is a victim of her own beauty and keeps having surgery to hold the years back. As each layer of her face is peeled away, more of her past is revealed. She herself is utterly haunted by her lost youth, and by her longing for one man who ultimately leaves her.

It’s that longing that really makes my novels haunted, I realise. I tend to write about obsessive, often dark and destructive yet highly addictive romantic or sexual desire, the longing itself more potent than the actual flawed relationship. In Sleep With Me, which was adapted by Andrew Davies as an ITV drama, the interloper, the unfathomable Sylvie, is frequently described as a ghost. In fact, the first line, which was used in the underground and train adverts, was "The day our child was conceived, someone else arrived. She was there as the cells fused, like a ghost."

The indications that I should write something more paranormal were screaming at me but still I didn’t notice! Reviewers even frequently described that novel as sinister, creepy, full of suspense, eerie, mesmerising and chilling... yet sometimes it still takes an outside eye to see what it is we should be doing.

My fourth novel, You, was all about a haunting of a different nature, though it was set in a large, creaking, thatched Devon house. In it, Cecilia is driven almost mad by the mistake she has made in the past in giving up a child for adoption. So haunted is she by it, she can almost think herself back into that time. In the meantime, the past is actually catching up with her in the form of that child, who has become a ghostly figure in her head but is actually all too real.

But this all took me to Touched, which is a finally novel that is decidedly and quite openly haunted! My first thought was a bright, bright—almost eerily bright—village green, and on that I saw a girl who dresses herself in Victorian clothes: shabby, faded, and decidedly odd. That was the starting point. Then I wondered about her mother, Rowena. Then I looked to her grandmother, and so the haunting began. In the meantime, Rowena, absolutely pursued by guilt, is developing her own very earthly passion for her intriguing neighbour, Gregory Dangerfield. Real life humans cause as many problems as the presences that haunt poor Rowena, while Rowena’s daughters have their own problems chasing them. And what is that face at the window, caught only in a split second film still? 

To me, with Touched, it was the perfection of the pretty village in which this family lives that was potentially eerie. And when they begin to attack the wall of their cottage to make a larger house, there is something not quite right going on, a sense of protest, of suffering. As ever, my characters are haunted by desire, longing, terrible guilt, and their past mistakes. But while they’re focusing on their own loves, lusts and shuddering regrets, less tangible apparitions gather in the margins. The spooks and spectres of the more plodding Victorian ghost stories don’t interest me, though there are some fine hauntings among them. It’s the presences that play while characters are looking elsewhere that get me: the glimpsed, the sensed, the loved. 

I think my ghosts have finally made their way out of the closet, and I look forward to sending them into the world, fully unformed.


Joanna Briscoe is the author of Mothers and Other Lovers, Skin, You and the highly acclaimed Sleep With Me, which was published in eleven countries and adapted for ITV Drama by Andrew Davies. She spent her very early years in 'the village of the damned,' Letchmore Heath in Hertfordshire, the location for the celebrated 1960 film based on John Wyndham's novel The Midwich Cuckooks—and the inspiration, too, for this Hammer novella.

You can find out more about Joanna on her website, www.joannabriscoe.com, or on Twitter @JoannaBriscoe. Stay tuned to The Speculative Scotsman to read my review of Touched as soon as is humanly.