Thursday, 30 September 2010

eee! Indeed

Could this surprise development herald a new direction for the great China Mieville?

No. Probably not. But how about that?

Wait, does no-one else see it? For goodness sake, the man used an exclamation point!

If nothing else, take this sociopath-friendly post as sage advice: you really should have the man's profoundly little-known Rejectmentalist Manifesto bookmarked by now. Don't expect China to spill the beans about Embassytown or give up the good stuff, such as when he's heading back to Bas-Lag; expect, instead, the unexpected, because that's precisely what you'll get. Now then.



Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Infinite Update

If the reveal of Irrational Games' long-gestating next project left you crestfallen, as the debut of Bioshock Infinite - aka Skyoshock - did me, and you haven't yet seen the ten minutes of live gameplay the esteemed developers put out presumably to allay such fears as my own, do yourself a favour:

Now I don't know that I believe heavily scripted sequences such as this will be commonplace in the final game - one can only imagine how much work it's taken Irrational just to pull off this 'un - but pack up your troubles in an old tin bag (don't worry about the cavalry), because if that gameplay is at all indicative of what Infinite is aiming to be, I think it's safe to consider it a potential game-changer already. I can't even begin to describe what a leg-up this kind of authored experience would give the medium...

There's also a 45-minute video over at Giant Bomb wherein ruggishly handsome Irrational mastermind Ken Levine - perhaps the closest thing, not coincidentally I would suggest, we have to an actual auteur in video games - explains what you've just seen and how it's significant. I'm not going to embed it here, but for all those of you with an interest in Bioshock and indeed, what gaming could be in a couple of years if Infinite makes the mark it surely means to, you owe it to yourself.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Disappears Into The Ether

So that's me. Off on holiday. In fact, contrary to my suggestion last week of merely taking a couple of weeks away to recharge, I'm actually on holiday. Right now, as you read this, in fact, I'm enjoying (I hope) a hastily planned trip to Krakow, where I hear there is cheese. I'll travel anywhere for a good cheese, I will. The moon has thus been on top of my agenda of holiday destinations for decades, now, but alas, Ryan Air don't fly there.


To tell the truth, you probably won't notice a huge difference in the blog with me at the helm versus the automaton I've enlisted to keep it updated while I'm away. To aid its efforts, I've personally squirreled away a few reviews and some other fun stuff to tide you all over. What Audrey the Auto-Pilot has in store, however, will be as much of a surprise to me as you.

Here's hoping something doesn't go awfully, awfully wrong while I'm gone... like say she develops a consciousness sub-routine, or falls in love with my toaster.

But it simply won't do to tease about the inevitable robot apocalypse, so.

See y'all! :)

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The BoSS for 26/09/10

The theme of The BoSS this week, embodied by the trio of The Bookman, Rules of Duel and most notably How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe, seems to be books that could well be brilliant, but which critical reaction in regards to has been mixed. Well, phooey to that. I'm not one to be discouraged by a bad review - especially when there's a good review to match every one. In fact, I'll confess: that opposition of opinion only serves to make the experience of reading these babies that much more appealing to me.

For the moment, click through to Meet the BoSS for an introduction and an explanation as to why you should care about the Bag o' Speculative Swag, or read on for a sneak peek at some of the books - past, present and future - you can expect to see coverage of here on The Speculative Scotsman in the coming weeks and months.


Rules of Duel
by Graham Masterton

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
01/09/10 by Telos

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "Depressed reporter Tom Crisp, sometimes known as A14, finds himself embroiled in a web of intrigue as he tries to make sense of his incarceration at Tin Type Hall. 'Just telling you' his story unravels in a series of 'silver film' as he finds himself in a world full of double-agents such as the psychotic Motherwell the Everlasting Executioner, John Remorse, the Serjeant of Time Film and Samuel Baptist HM Inspector of Brothels. In a world where sexually charged sofas ejaculate black horse hair and the Hypocritic Oath is blamed for failed medical procedures, Crisp stands helplessly by as Jack Beauregard, the Eater of Cities, is hunted down. It could all be the fault of the Mysterious Babies ... but then maybe you can feel the 'Cold Sun'..."

Commentary: What an oddity this is... a "recently-rediscovered" manuscript composed by a master of dodgy old-school horror under the tutelage of William S. Burroughs - whom I only know of because of David Cronenberg (my bad) - the "creator of the literarily acclaimed intersection writing technique," which to be perfectly frank I've never heard of. Still. Very nicely presented by Telos. And my ignorance aside, this could be something special; certainly the talent is there. Mind you, having googled intersection writing, I get the sense it won't likely be the easiest of reads.

How to Live Safely in a
Science-Fictional Universe
by Charles Yu

Release Details:
Published in the US on
01/10/10 by Corvus

Review Priority:
5 (Immediate)

Plot Synopsis: "With only TAMMY - a slightly tearful computer with self-esteem issues - a software boss called Phil - Microsoft Middle Manager 3.0 - and an imaginary dog called Ed for company, fixing time machines is a lonely business and Charles Yu is stuck in a rut. He's spent the better part of a decade navel-gazing, spying on 39 different versions of himself in alternate universes (and discovered that 35 of them are total jerks). And he's kind of fallen in love with TAMMY, which is bad because she doesn't have a module for that. With all that's on his mind, perhaps it's no surprise that when he meets his future self, he shoots him in the stomach. And that's a beginner's mistake for a time machine repairman. Now he's stuck in a time loop, going in circles forever. All he has, wrapped in brown paper, is the book his future self was trying to press into his hands. It's called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. And he's the author. And somewhere inside it is the information that could save him."

Commentary: The buzz on How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe has been rather mixed. Some people seem to think Charles Yu's debut is the best thing since sliced bread, others that it's a case of much ado about nothing. Here's hoping that latter group, per my suspicions, are rather missing the point, because I'm good and excited to sit down with this one. I'm imagining something along the lines of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy crossed with The Holy Machine, by Chris Beckett. Oh, and +1 for metafictional sci-fi.

Against All Things Ending
by Stephen R. Donaldson


Release Details:
Published in the UK on
28/10/10 by Gollancz

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "Desperate for help to find her adopted son, Jeremiah, Linden Avery has resurrected Thomas Covenant in a cataclysmic exertion of Earthpower and wild magic. But the consequences of her efforts are more terrible than she could have imagined. Sorcery on that scale has awakened the Worm of the World's End: the ultimate end of all Time, and therefore of all life, has been set in motion. And on a more personal level, the results are no less extreme. The stress of reincarnation so many centuries after his death has fractured Covenant's mind. He cannot tell Linden where to find her son. And his leprosy has renewed its grip on him, inexorably killing his nerves. The Ranyhyn had tried to warn her. Now, plunged to depths of desperation and despair for which she is entirely unprepared, Linden seeks radical responses to the dilemmas she has created. Searching for Jeremiah, and accompanied only by a few friends and allies - some of them unwilling - she takes chances that threaten her sanity, forcing her to confront the Land's most fearsome secrets. Dreadful futures hinge on all of her choices, and she and her companions are driven beyond the limits of their endurance. Yet she still walks paths laid out for her by the Despiser, and his forces are ready..."

Commentary: Against All Things Ending is the penultimate book of The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and indeed, unless Stephen R. Donaldson pulls the another one (stranger things have happened), this long-standing series entire. I'll admit I've a lot of catching up to do if I mean to follow the unbeliever through his final trials...

...but to be honest, I've rather an appetite to do just that. I've only read some of the first series, and that was a long time ago, but what I did read, I remember enjoying, and for any series to have the staying power this one has - there's got to be something to it, you know?

(On the other hand, my mum gave up on The Various Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series five or six books in because it was, to paraphrase her, unrelentingly miserable. Take from that what you will.)

The Bookman
by Lavie Tidhar

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
07/01/10 by Angry Robot

Review Priority:
5 (Immediate)

Plot Synopsis: "A masked terrorist has brought London to its knees -- there are bombs inside books, and nobody knows which ones. On the day of the launch of the first expedition to Mars, by giant cannon, he outdoes himself with an audacious attack. For young poet Orphan, trapped in the screaming audience, it seems his destiny is entwined with that of the shadowy terrorist, but how? Like a steam-powered take on V for Vendetta, rich with satire and slashed through with automatons, giant lizards, pirates, airships and wild adventure, The Bookman is the first of a series."

Commentary: Colour me surprised to see such a wealth of negative criticism directed towards The Bookman on the Amazon UK page I perused while stealing publication details and whatnot. I read the first five chapters or so last night, finally catching up on the spoilery synopsis (which I've spared you), and I'm good and sold on this alternate history steampunk escapade. Lavie Tidhar has a wonderful turn of phrase, eloquent and ominous, that puts me in mind of some mad bastard sired from an unholy union between China Mieville and Jeff VanderMeer. Perhaps it'll all go tits-up before the last hammer falls, there's always the chance, but I doubt it.

This put anyone else in mind of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman - Alan Moore's comics, not the God-awful film - or is that just me?

Guardians of Paradise
by Jaine Fenn

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
02/09/09 by Gollancz

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "Most people believe the Sidhe are long dead, exterminated centuries ago when the males of the race rose up and fought alongside the humans subjugated and enslaved by the female Sidhe. But Jarek Reen knows better: he's discovered, the painful way, that the Sidhe are alive and well, and still screwing over humanity. They've already killed his sister, so he's not surprised when he discovers an old friend and her partner are next on the Sidhe's hitlist. He helps not only to foil the assassination attempt, but also to muddy the scene of the crime, leaving the Angels Nual and Taro sanMalia presumed dead - and free to join his crusade to expose the insidious influence of the Sidhe, and their evil plans to enslave the human race again. Their mission takes them across human-space, from utilitarian hub-points to rich, exotic planets - where they discover that a brilliant vacation spot hides some of the darkest secrets of all. And that's when they discover how easy it is for the hunters to become the hunted..."

Commentary: Hmmm. Now here's a name that calls to me... yet I can't quite place it. Nor has trawling through Jaine Fenn's back-catalogue enlightened me. I'd read Guardians of Paradise out of curiosity if nothing else, but there's plenty else I like the sound of in that there plot synopsis. Add to that I've been on something of a sci-fi kick of late - count down Engineman, The Dreaming Void, The Quiet War and another that isn't quite coming to mind - and I think it's safe to say: I'm in.

The Curse of the Wendigo
by Rick Yancey

Release Details:
Published in the UK on 12/10/10
by Simon & Schuster Children's

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "While attempting to disprove that Homo vampiris, the vampire, could exist, Dr. Warthrop is asked by his former fiance to rescue her husband from the Wendigo, a creature that starves even as it gorges itself on human flesh, which has snatched him in the Canadian wilderness. Although Warthrop also considers the Wendigo to be fictitious, he relents and rescues her husband from death and starvation, and then sees the man transform into a Wendigo. Can the doctor and Will Henry hunt down the ultimate predator, who, like the legendary vampire, is neither living nor dead, whose hunger for human flesh is never satisfied? This second book in The Monstrumologist series explores the line between myth and reality, love and hate, genius and madness."

Commentary: Now this sounds like it could be a whole lot of fun. Of course, I've got to read The Monstrumologist first, haven't I? Luckily, I have a copy of book one in this YA series to hand. Sent for review many moons ago, as a matter of fact, though at the time the Horrible Histories cover design rather leveled off my interest. The spiffing new art adorning The Curse of the Wendigo makes me that much more likely to give this sequel, and indeed its predecessor, a shot; one nil in favour of the importance of a pretty cover, eh?

Will Power
by A. J. Hartley

Release Details:
Published in the US on
14/09/10 by Tor

Review Priority:
2 (Fair)

Plot Synopsis: "While on the run from Empire guards, Will Hawthorne and his band of thieves are transported to a mysterious land that none of them recognize or know how to get home from. Turns out that they've landed right in the middle of a battle between goblins and humans. Their human allies are practically storybook counterparts to the rough sorts they knew in Stavis, speaking in high-flown prose, dressed to the height of fashion, and dripping with wealth and social propriety. Will's companions are quite taken by these fine folks, but the Fair Folk are appalled by Will's unorthodoxy.

"At first Will does whatever he can to try to squirm into their good graces, but just when his efforts are feeling totally futile, he begins to wonder if these too-perfect courtiers and warriors have anything to offer beyond their glamour and their burning hatred of the goblins. But is there any recourse for Will and his friends once it turns out that the humans who are sheltering them may not be on the right side of their eternal conflict?

"Will Power is a funny and fleet-footed stand-alone fantasy featuring the characters readers grew to love in Act of Will in an all-new adventure about the danger of first impressions."

Commentary: If I'm not wrong, Will Power is the fourth volume in a series of standalone narrative which sounds like a continental equivalent to The Court of The Air and its sequels, from our own Stephen Hunt. Now perhaps that's miles off the mark, but I've heard nothing about Will Power to indicate otherwise, and I'll be honest: Stephen Hunt's novels have left me quite, quite cold. We'll have to see about this one...

Friday, 24 September 2010

Video Game Review: Halo - Reach

You know, Bungie made a couple of other games before they hit the big time. There was Marathon, Myth and Oni, three relatively distinct chapters in the studio's development, each representative of a different direction, a new way to play. In retrospect, none of Bungie's earlier efforts stand out particularly; look at them as learning experiences for a company finding its feet, however, low-stakes tables on which a ragtag gang of players learned the game, and their significance skyrockets. Without them, Halo: Combat Evolved would not have been what it was, and what it was - what it is - altered the landscape of gaming forever. Combat Evolved wasn't the first console-friendly FPS, but the repercussions of its stellar success are still being felt today. Had Bungie not knocked it out the park with that first turnabout in Master Chief's SPARTAN armour, would the likes of Gears of War and Call of Duty even exist?

Perhaps I'm giving Halo too much credit. Perhaps they would do... but mark my words: had they lacked the foundation stones Bungie set in place to build upon, they'd be very, very different games.

Nevertheless, it's been ten years since Combat Evolved changed things up - ten years - and in that time, the evolution of gaming hasn't simply halted in anticipation of Bungie's next innovation. To paraphrase Solid Snake, that font of gravelly wisdom, "gaming... has changed." Or was that Kratos? In any event, the Halo franchise has idled along for near enough a decade now, with sequels and spin-offs and cross-media razzmatazz wherever you look. And it's been fun. It has: with success on their side, Bungie has shaped a universe that some believe to be this generation's Star Wars equivalent (though I'd debate that point). They've brought Halo's idiosyncratic gameplay and graphics up to date, and they've managed to do so without radically diverging from the formula which makes the One Franchise to Rule Them All so very distinctive.

But it's finally come time for Bungie to put Halo to bed. And not a moment too soon, given that the inimitable Master Chief has been absent for two full games, his tale wrapped up in a pretty little bow fashioned from the cat-gut innards of Covenant grunts. Appropriately, then, Halo: Reach harks back to a time before the earth-shattering events of the trilogy proper. In fact, so the lede line goes: from the beginning, you know how it ends. For the uninitiated, it ends... badly. With millions dead, the UNSC defeated, and the sleek alien invaders looking for all intents and purposes as if they've won the battle and the war. If you please, see Halo: The Fall of Reach, Eric Nylund's not inconspicuously-named tie-in novel, for more details on the chronology.

In fact, if you've read The Fall of Reach, you'll find yourself in familiar territory here. Nylund's surprisingly competent Starship Troopers-esque narrative doesn't infringe upon the events of Reach so much as enrich them. As Noble Six, new recruit to a team of so many SPARTANs tasked as ever with the apparently impossible, you'll visit a handful of locations referenced by the expanded canon, see firsthand how certain events pivotal to the overarching Halo narrative came about, not to mention recognise a few familiar face - among them SPARTAN program mastermind Dr. Halsey, Cortana, John 117's onboard AI, and... well. That'd be telling, wouldn't it?

You couldn't call Halo: Reach a surprising game. There's not a lot about it that's new, all told. The campaign is your usual eight to ten hours of fraught battles against the same old assortment of enemies and awesome set-pieces bolstered by brilliant, if now lamentably familiar design. You can expect to spend that amount of time again (and again, and again) with the myriad multiplayer modes on offer, now complete a few new variants and at last, matchmaking for Firefight, Halo's own Horde mode. Surely I don't need to tell you the gameplay in either single player or online is sound; frenetic as ever and so utterly seamless, in fact, that it could only have come from a decade's iterative process. Come down right to it, a legion of hopefuls and pretenders have done little to diminish the fact that there's nothing quite like Halo.

And Reach is Halo to a T. It looks like Halo; it sounds like Halo; it plays like Halo. Indeed, Reach is a truer successor to the trilogy in spirit and in impact than the (nevertheless very fine) aberration of last holiday's Halo 3: ODST. Now if Halo's left you wanting in the past, Reach isn't going to adjust your attitude in the slightest. What we have here is more of the same - except, and here's the thing: it's the same, but better. Better in every sense. To begin with, the single-player campaign is diverse and expansive. Moreover, Reach boasts a sense of place and time rarely felt in Halo before... and I don't just mean you're on Planet Reach before its inevitable fall; of course you are, but where before Bungie would have been content to plop you into battlefields with little to no explanation of why you're there and how you got there, in Reach you're chauffeured from one breathtaking location to the next while Noble Six's commander outlines your charge. The storytelling is otherwise more sophisticated and coherent than it's ever been. Yes, you know how it ends, but getting there is a truly satisfying feat; emotional, even.

And boy, is the presentation in Reach ever stunning. It looks... fantastic. The vistas are incredible, the future tech sleek and authentic. As ever, the frame rate is solid, but it's particularly impressive this time out, with so many enemies in the exacting arenas you'll forge through at once, and so much detail to each of their individual character models, as all the while blinding explosions ring out and great UNSC carriers dwarf the sun in the sky. Nor is Marty O'Donnell's score a rehash of classic Halo themes. By turns bombastic and haunting, the composer here achieves new heights with an original soundtrack that, taken in tandem with the events of the campaign, will give you chills in all the right ways.

Add to that the addition of daily and weekly challenges to an already tremendous array of multiplayer modes, whereby you earn credits by completing certain actions to unlock a multitude of armour pieces and effects with which to customise your SPARTAN soldier (both online and in the single-player), and... well. If this cracking package doesn't tide you over till Bungie reveal via Activision their next original IP, you're a hard sell indeed. Reach might be more of the same, but Halo has never looked, sounded or played better. A fitting swan song, then, for a developer now defined by a single property, a property which, whatever its faults, has come to represent not just a species of experience, but a touchstone for all other modern shooters to be measured against.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Book Review: Halo - The Fall of Reach by Eric Nylund

Buy this book from

"As the bloody Human-Covenant War rages on Halo, the fate of humankind may rest with one warrior, the lone SPARTAN survivor of another legendary battle. This was the desperate, take-no-prisoners struggle that led humanity to Halo - the fall of the planet Reach. Now, for the first time, here is the full story of that glorious, doomed conflict ...Almost on Earth's doorstep, Reach is the last military fortress to defy the brutal Covenant onslaught. But their highest priority is to prevent the Covenant from discovering Earth. The outnumbered soldiers seem to have little chance, but Reach is the secret training ground for the very first 'super soldiers'. Code-named SPARTANs, these bioengineered and technologically augmented warriors are the best - quiet, professional and deadly. As the ferocious Covenant attack begins, a handful of SPARTANs stand ready to wage ultimate war. And at least one of them - the SPARTAN 'Master Chief' - will live to fight another day on a mysterious and ancient artificial world called Halo..."


I'll be honest: I've never quite understood the love some people have for the Halo universe. I've played all of the games, from the original, Combat Evolved, through to Bungie's swansong, last week's Reach. Hell, I was one of the very few to follow the SPARTANs into the Real-Time Strategy-space in the insipid Halo Wars, thinking that the experience of the broader mythos, away from Master Chief's isolationist laser focus, might inspire some affection in me. It didn't.

From afar, I've admired the spectacles of the Halo games... the breathtaking set-pieces, the invention of the worldbuilding, in particular the complex interplay between the stock space marines - the UNSC - and the Covenant, a ruthless race of sleek alien invaders, one of whom Master Chief had to team up with a few games ago. But I've always felt Bungie got rather more credit than they were due. In terms of storytelling, the franchise has been all over the place in its myriad iterations; never once the equal of the ideas you can see straining to punch through the thick titanium armour of the awkward exposition Halo games have made their proverbial bread and butter. I've found them fundamentally sound, with bulletproof, if idiosyncratic gameplay and a rich enough backdrop to make further encounters worth the price of entry, but artistically, not a little crass.

Halo: The Fall of Reach hasn't changed my perspective on that one iota. What it's done, this updated edition of a decade-old book composed in a scant seven weeks with little to no input from the creative team behind the property in the first place (and breathe) is clued me in on all that the Halo games could have been. Eric Nylund's novel gives us a landscape as ubiquitous to this generation as the snowy kingdom behind a certain wardrobe door was to another, and yet for the first time, we have a vantage point from which to admire it. Moreover, he proffers up a context for the characters and crises of the games proper, enriching them immeasurably in so doing. High praise, this, all things considered: The Fall of Reach makes me want to play through the whole Halo saga again, with the depth so lacking in each of the games - in terms of storytelling, you understand; Bungie have the gameplay equation down to a T - now present and correct. And all because I've read a tie-in novel. Who'd have thunk it?

If this was proscribed reading for an understanding of the Halo games when it first came out, ten years ago, I wish someone had thought to tell me. Thankfully, I managed to get Eric Nylund's novel under my belt before Reach itself arrived, and as I suspected - though it may be particularly the case given that the game and the book in question are both precursors to Combat Evolved, chronicles of pivotal events occurring in concert - I enjoyed the fiction of Reach a great deal more than I have any of Bungie's other efforts. Equally, the fiction of The Fall of Reach surprised me: there's plenty of Starship Troopers-style SPARTAN on grunt action, sure, and it's narrated with an immediacy bordering on voyeurism, but the larger part of Nylund's tie-in is about the small potatoes. We begin and end on Planet Reach; between times, however, this is not a story of explosive intergalactic battles (of which there are nevertheless enough to satisfy that end of the market) so much as it is an unexpectedly personal account of the kids co-opted into Dr. Halsey's experimental program. Among them, John, candidate number 117 - you might have heard of him - who we watch evolve from a six year-old bully to a soldier, then a leader, and at last, the Master Chief; none other. As late-game guest star Cortana concludes, "The Master Chief was much more than Dr. Halsey and the press releases had indicated," and so he is.

Not just a gun attached to an arm, then. Huh.

All of which isn't to say Eric Nylund's novel is some transcendent specimen of fiction. It isn't. Its composition is as by-the-numbers as you'd expect given that only four (presumably mad) months passed between the conception of The Fall of Reach to its publication... though from time to time Nylund does have his moments. He asks the big questions - for instance "Was Dr. Halsey a monster? Or just doing what had to be done to protect humanity?" - and though he hardly gives such issues the room to develop, credit to the gent for the attempt; it's more successful, certainly, than any of the various games' attempts.

The Fall of Reach, then, isn't the book to get your other half pumped for some co-op Halo action, but what it sets out to do - which is to entertain, to intrigue, and to enrich the largely wasted promise of the fiction hinted at in the games - it does, and quick smart at that.

Now. Back to Team Slayer...


Halo: The Fall of Reach
by Eric Nylund
August 2010, Tor US

Buy this book from / /
IndieBound / The Book Depository

Recommended and Related Reading

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Holiday, Interrupted

So starting today, I was going to take a couple of weeks off. Maybe to go somewhere - the other half and I have talked about spending a few nights in Krakow - but mostly just to recharge the old batteries. Take the critic's hat off for a book or two, you know... enjoy a thing on its own terms for once.

To tide you all over, I was going to schedule a choice few reviews to run while I was in absentia. I've read the books: they're sat here in a neat little stack, just waiting for me to give them each an hour or two and the attention they surely deserve, each in their own ways.

I was going to look into gutting my computer once and for all; I was going to finally put pen to paper on a long short story that's been knocking around my head for months; I was going to spend some quality time with the aforementioned other half, be it in Krakow or not. I was going to do a bunch of things, all told.

And then Halo: Reach happened. And for once, the year's biggest triple-A video game hasn't left me utterly cold. Perhaps that's something to do with my having read the reissue of Eric Nylund's decade-old origin story, The Fall of Reach. In fact, I think it's pretty safe to say that indeed, it is. But anyway. In a fortnight's time, Halo's going to be old news, and colour me surprised, I actually have a few things to say about Bungie's pet project this year; better that I say them while people are still interested in hearing them.

So the holiday... it's not off, not altogether, but I'm pushing it back till next week so I can spend a few days going while the getting's good. Thus, before the weekend's upon us, look forward to full reviews of both the game and the book, as well as a lengthy, related discussion of the whys and wherefores of shared worlds fiction which takes in Halo: The Fall of Reach, Dead Space: Martyr and a whole bunch of other tie-ins besides.

Meantime, who here plays Halo: Reach multiplayer? I'm "niallalot" on Xbox Live and I've shot (and indeed been shot by) a fair few of you in the face online already, but the more the merrier! Friend me, or leave your gamertag in the comments and I'll do the dirty work myself. Together, surely, we can defeat Legendary difficulty...

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The BoSS for 19/09/10

What do I have for you today? Well, a cadre of classics, to start with: among them The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Complete Lyonesse, both of which look fantastic - and one of which (you'll have to read on to find out exactly which) I've already read... though, admittedly, that was decades ago.

Oh, and Ship Breaker. Did I not mention Ship Breaker? Well, Ship Breaker. Hells yeah! :D

For the moment, click through to Meet the BoSS for an introduction and an explanation as to why you should care about the Bag o' Speculative Swag, or read on for a sneak peek at some of the books - past, present and future - you can expect to see coverage of here on The Speculative Scotsman in the coming weeks and months.


Cold Magic
by Kate Elliott

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
02/09/10 by Orbit

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "As they approach adulthood, Cat Barahal and her cousin Bee think they understand the society they live in and their place within it. At a select academy they study new airship technologies and the dawning Industrial Revolution, but magical forces still rule. And the cousins are about to discover the full ruthlessness of this rule. Drawn into a labyrinth of politics involving blood and old feuds, Cat is betrayed by her family and forced to marry a powerful Cold Mage. As she is carried away to live a new life, fresh dangers threaten her every move and secrets form a language she cannot read. At least, not yet. But both cousins carry their own hidden gifts and these will shape great changes to come. For in the depths of this treacherous world, the Wild Hunt stirs in darkness and dragons are waking from their sleep."

Commentary: You know what I love on the covers of my fantasy fiction? Pictures of pretty ladies. Yup. The prettier the lady the better. That's all it takes!

You can smell my sarcasm, I'm sure; really, I should behave myself. Cold Magic could be brilliant, for all I know - though what I read of Traitor's Gate... well. Wasn't. This, however, is the start of a new trilogy (I presume) and you never know: Kate Elliott could have grown up an author, enough to do her otherwise promising narratives justice. One can only hope.

I'll give Cold Magic a look, at least.

Ship Breaker
by Paulo Bacigalupi

Release Details:
Published in the US on
01/05/10 by Little, Brown

Review Priority:
5 (Immediate)

Plot Synopsis: "In America's Gulf Coast region, where grounded oil tankers are being broken down for parts, Nailer, a teenage boy, works the light crew, scavenging for copper wiring just to make quota - and hopefully live to see another day. But when, by luck or chance, he discovers an exquisite clipper ship beached during a recent hurricane, Nailer faces the most important decision of his life: strip the ship for all it's worth or rescue its lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl who could lead him to a better life."

Commentary: This, on the other hand... this is more like it. I've been looking forward to Ship Breaker since The Windup Girl wowed me late last year, and thanks to the sweethearts over at Orbit, who are handling the UK distribution of this Stateside-only release, I can finally see how Paulo Bacigalupi, master speculator, handles the young adult demographic.

Saying that, is Ship Breaker speculative fiction in the least? Not to suggest I wouldn't be just as excited for this one if it isn't, but there's nothing in the plot synopsis to indicate as much. And I was under the impression, you know?

The Complete Lyonesse
by Jack Vance


Release Details:
Published in the UK on
26/08/10 by Gollancz

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "The Elder Isles - an ancient land where chivalry and the realm of fairie exist side by side. A land of mystery, strange beauty, high adventure and arcane magic. Kings are at war, opposing magicians devise ever more cunning stratagems. It is a land where princesses and changelings both can become embroiled in political rivalries and the quest for the grail."

Commentary: One of Gollanz's Black Books - joining The Complete Chronicles of Conan and a collection of H. P. Lovecraft's best weird fiction - The Complete Lyonesse is a sumptuous, leatherbound-looking repackaging of Suldrun's Garden, The Green Pearl and Madouc, the lattermost of which won Jack Vance the World Fantasy Award.

And this from the author of The Dying Earth, one of THE most influential works of speculative fiction. Ever.

So I'm going to read this beast. Yes indeed. But give me a couple of months. The Complete Lyonesse clocks in at more than 1000 pages, and the font throughout is... shall we say eensy-weensy? That said, I'm sure it'll be worth every second I invest in it.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
by Alan Garner

Release Details:
Published in the UK on 30/09/10
by HarperCollins Children's Books

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "When Colin and Susan are pursued by eerie creatures across Alderley Edge, they are saved by the Wizard. He takes them into the caves of Fundindelve, where he watches over the enchanted sleep of one hundred and forty knights.

"But the heart of the magic that binds them – Firefrost, also known as the Weirdstone of Brisingamen – has been lost. The Wizard has been searching for the stone for more than 100 years, but the forces of evil are closing in, determined to possess and destroy its special power.

"Colin and Susan realise at last that they are the key to the Weirdstone’s return. But how can two children defeat the Morrigan and her deadly brood?"

Commentary: Go HarperCollins for republishing this seminal fantasy masterpiece in such a lavish edition! In celebration of the 50th anniversary of its publication, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is back in print, featuring a gorgeous new design and a foreword by Alan Garner himself, who many, I tend to suspect, will recall for The Owl Service rather than this. But it was The Weirdstone of Brisingamen that won me over to Alan Garner's corner, way back when, and alongside the likes of Redwall and The Never-ending Story, it proved a formative experience for me, in retrospect.

It'll be interesting, no doubt, to go back to one of the very classics that set me on the path I walk today, which I will do just as soon as the opportunity to presents itself. Not only that: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was succeeded by The Moons of Gomrath, which book's existence came as no small surprise to me. And lucky sod that I am, I have a copy of that, too!

Shades of Milk and Honey
by Mary Robinette Kowal

Release Details:
Published in the US on
03/08/09 by Tor

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "Jane and her sister Melody vie for the attentions of eligible men, and while Jane’s skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face. When Jane realizes that one of Melody’s suitors is set on taking advantage of her sister for the sake of her dowry, she pushes her skills to the limit of what her body can withstand in order to set things right - and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own."

Commentary: Another book I've been hearing about for what feels like forever - despite it only coming out last month (damn you advance reviews!) - Shades of Milk and Honey has been painted, even according to its own blurb, as a novel very much in the vein of Suzanna Clarke's classic fantasy tome. Speaking of whom, hurry up with the next 'un, Suzanna! Anyway. Shades of Milk and Honey looks, sounds, and for all intents and purposes is, great. I can hardly wait to have Mary Robinette Kowal usher me around a simpler time - and mercifully, her novel is perhaps only a third the length of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Mercifully insofar as I only have so much time, and this is a book I dearly want to devote myself to.

Black Swan Rising
by Lee Carroll

Release Details:
Published in the US
on 03/08/10 by Tor

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "When New York City jewelry designer Garet James stumbles into a strange antiques shop in her neighborhood, her life is about to be turned upside down. John Dee, the enigmatic shopkeeper, commissions her to open a vintage silver box for a generous sum of money. Oddly, the symbol of a swan on the box exactly matches the ring given to her by her deceased mother. Garet can’t believe her luck and this eerie coincidence until she opens the box and otherworldly things start happening...

"That evening, the precious silver box is stolen. When Garet begins to investigate, she learns that she has been pulled into a prophecy that is hundreds of years old, and opening the box has unleashed an evil force onto the streets of Manhattan and the world at large. Gradually, Garet pieces together her true identity—one that her deceased mother desperately tried to protect her from. Generations of women in Garet’s family, including her beloved mother, suffered and died at the hands of this prevailing evil. Does Garet possess the power to reclaim the box and defeat this devastating force?

"On her journey, she will meet the fey folk who walk unnoticed among humans and a sexy vampire who also happens to be a hedge fund manager that she can’t stop thinking about. But the fairies reveal a desire to overpower mere humans and the seductive vampire has the power to steal the life from her body. Whom can Garet trust to guide her? Using her newfound powers and sharp wit, Garet will muster everything she’s got to shut down the evil taking over her friends, family, New York City, and the world."

Commentary: Oh no! Did someone say "sexy vampire"?

I'll pretend I didn't hear that. Because honestly, in every other respect, Black Swan Rising sounds like it could be great. From the brooding cover to the neat title, to the esteem erstwhile Gothic author Carol Goodman (writing here under a pseudonym with her hubby, the poet Lee Slominsky) is held in, Black Swan Rising is very probably paranormal romance, yes, but - though a choice few rants might have convinced you otherwise - I'm not averse to the idea of good paranormal romance... only the tripe so often published under that banner.

We'll surely see about this one. Oddly, perhaps, I have hopes.

Gardens of the Sun
by Paul McAuley

Release Details:
Published in the UK
on 26/08/09 by Gollancz

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "The Quiet War is over. The city states of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn have fallen to the Three Powers Alliance of Greater Brazil, the European Union and the Pacific Community. A century of enlightenment, rational utopianism and exploration of new ways of being human has fallen dark. Outers are herded into prison camps and forced to collaborate in the systematic plundering of their great archives of scientific and technical knowledge, while Earth's forces loot their cities, settlements and ships, and plan a final solution to the 'Outer problem'. But Earth's victory is fragile, and riven by vicious internal politics. While seeking out and trying to anatomise the strange gardens abandoned in place by Avernus, the Outers' greatest genius, the gene wizard Sri Hong-Owen is embroiled in the plots and counterplots of the family that employs her. The diplomat Loc Ifrahim soon discovers that profiting from victory isn't as easy as he thought. And in Greater Brazil, the Outers' democratic traditions have infected a population eager to escape the tyranny of the great families who rule them. After a conflict fought to contain the expansionist, posthuman ambitions of the Outers, the future is as uncertain as ever. Only one thing is clear. No one can escape the consequences of war - especially the victors."

Commentary: You mustn't misunderstand the middling review priority I've assigned to Gardens of the Moon: it's so low only because I'm going to have to read The Quiet War before I can start in on this, the second book of Paul McAuley's hugely acclaimed duology, and so it'll be a while yet, I fear, before I can come back to you all with my thoughts on it. I expect it to be at least the equal of Peter F. Hamilton's mind-bogglingly ambitious Void trilogy (which, don't you know, I'm enjoying very much, thanks for asking).

Saturday, 18 September 2010

A Capitol Competition: We Have Our Winners!

What a week it's been...

Well, sadly, it's almost over now. Hasn't it been fun though? We should totally do this again.

In any event, there's just one last matter to address before we draw back the curtains and dim the lights on The Hunger Games once and for all - at least until more concrete news of the inevitable film adaptations break, that is. Remember the giveaway I announced on Tuesday? Well, we have our winners.

But before we get to that, let me remind you, one last time, of the question... in question. Ahem.

"Which District of Panem does Katniss Everdeen, heroine of The Hunger Games and Mockingjay du jour, hail from?"

The correct answer - you need only have skim-read the back cover blurb of any of the books in the trilogy, or indeed my reviews thereof, to have found out - was, of course, District 12. Thanks to everyone who entered.

Now. To the lucky so-and-sos who emailed me the correct answer before the deadline for entries elapsed. These three kings will be receiving a mug, a t-shirt and a set of swanky temporary tattoos in the mail shortly:
  • Cara Murphy, from Surrey;
  • Michael Morton, from West Yorkshire;
  • and Ken Collins, from Edinburgh.
In addition to which, we have one grand prizewinner, who goes home with all the aforementioned goodies AND a complete set of The Hunger Games trilogy itself.

Pardon me, house band. A drum roll, please?

Yes, that's much better.

The grand poobah, then, is none other than:

  • Catherine Asher, from London.
Congratulations, Catherine! In fact, congrats to all the winners! And commiserations to all the losers!

And from me, on behalf of the Capitol, adieu!

Friday, 17 September 2010

Book Review: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

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"Against all odds, Katniss Everdeen has survived the Hunger Games twice. But now that she’s made it out of the bloody arena alive, she’s still not safe. The Capitol is angry. The Capitol wants revenge. Who do they think should pay for the unrest? Katniss. And what’s worse, President Snow has made it clear that no one else is safe either. Not Katniss’ family, not her friends, not the people of District 12."


For all intents and purposes, the Hunger Games are done. After thwarting the Capitol's grim Battle Royale with a declaration of love in the face of utter devastation and a threat of double suicide by poisonous berry her first time out, sparking rumbles of revolution all across Panem, the government contrived in the form of the Quarter Quell a second opportunity to be rid of troublesome District 12 resident Katniss Everdeen. But against all the odds, she pulled through again. At the close of Catching Fire, it was revealed that a number of so-called "tributes" had been working together to save Katniss and her sometime lover, Peeta, that they might act as symbols of the uprising. Would that the leaders of the revolution had thought to ask for her assent first...

When Mockingjay begins, she's having none of it. Safe for the moment in the bunkers of a secret thirteenth district, from where the rebellion is being orchestrated, Katniss has time to reflect. She's been used by the Capitol, by President Snow, by her tutor, Haymitch, and worst of all, by Peeta, who wasn't so lucky in the climax of the Quarter Quell: the oppressors have him at their mercy, and they're prepared to do whatever it takes to break the unwitting Mockingjay's spirit - and thus the backbone of revolution - once and for all. Katniss doesn't know who to trust, where to turn, what to do. And all the while, the burden of expectation weighs her down. "What they want", she intuits, "is for me to truly take on the role they designed for me... It isn't enough, what I've done in the past, defying the Capitol in the Games, providing a rallying point. I must now become the actual leader, the face, the voice, the embodiment of the revolution. The person who the districts - most of which are now openly at war with the Capitol - can count on to blaze the path to victory." But at what cost? And why has it fallen on her to lead the very people who would have happily cheered at her death in the arena only a year ago?

Eventually, inevitably, Katniss puts her qualms to one side for the greater good, but conjoined with the comprehensive catch-up the final volume of any trilogy must offer up, her doubts make the first third of Mockingjay something of a slog. Perhaps Katniss' endless indecisiveness fits with her character, but it's hard to express how frustrating it is to see her, yet again, second-guessing the very resolutions she's made (after no small amount of humm-ing and ha-ing) in the previous books, only for her to redouble her resolve a couple of chapters later, arriving back, in the end, at square one, and no further.

There's a lot going on in Mockingjay. Suzanne Collins has iterated in Panem a fascinating post-collapse society rife with conflicts infinitely richer and more relevant than those Katniss is faced with, the vast majority of which, at least initially, get short shrift next to her tiresome internal monologue. What of the districts at war with their brutal oppressors? What of the people of the Capitol itself, whose obsession with Katniss, the erstwhile girl on fire, surely clashes with their primitive understanding of the impoverished who make their lives of luxury possible? What of Peeta, Haymitch, Gale and Prim? Instead, we're stuck with Katniss - as we have been throughout the trilogy - whose isolationist perspective only detracts from the greater issues in play.

Thankfully, things pick up once Katniss has finally made up her mind to be the Mockingjay. Our experience of the uprising begins in earnest, and the fallout is truly horrific; Collins pulls no punches in the race to the jagged finish line. The body count rises exponentially... the conflicts Katniss must come to terms with grow to dwarf her directionless angst of only a handful of chapters ago... and far be it for me to spoil the fraught conclusion for those of you who haven't already gobbled it up, but everything falls apart in short order, and Collins, true to her relentlessly dystopian vision to the bittersweet end, does not see fit to put all the pieces back together in the pandering way so many young adult authors surely would.

Mockingjay is certainly a more coherent and ultimately satisfying addition to The Hunger Games than Catching Fire was. Given how far from the formula Mockingjay strays, book two of the trilogy feels, in retrospect, like little more than a rerun of Katniss' first trial, an inferior director's cut which Collins should have had the sense to let well enough alone. But neither is Mockingjay the breath of fresh air The Hunger Games was: only in the approach to the finale does Katniss actually develop as a character in any real sense, and considering that Collins has told this entire tale from her inherently limited perspective, it seems a real shame to have had her, and by extension us, tread water for so long. With such an incredible setting to exploit, such a fertile cast of supporting characters to give it depth and texture, lumbering the conclusion of the trilogy - which once promised so much - with yet another round of Katniss' exhausting self-doubt only hurts Mockingjay in the end.

It has its faults, then, just as Catching Fire and indeed - to a lesser extent - the first book in the series, but on the whole, Mockingjay makes for a fitting curtain call to The Hunger Games, which itself stands, whatever the individual failings of its three volumes, as a daring and supremely addictive instance of modern young adult literature at its pinnacle. Harry Potter and Twilight be damned: to whomsoever is keeping tabs on such matters, The Hunger Games, and pray, not they, should go down in the history books as a game-changer.


by Suzanne Collins
August 2010, Scholastic

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