Monday, 21 December 2015

Book Review | The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

"I saw the John Carpenter film The Thing for the first time recently. That wasn't one of the VHS tapes they gave us, back then, to watch on the base. For obvious reasons. That's not what it was like for me at all. That doesn't capture it at all. They, or it, or whatever, were not thing-y. They are inhuman. But this is only my dream of them, I think."

Two men, alone together on an Antarctic research base. A killer. A sceptic. Alone for months on end. Separated by what they believe. Joined together by Fermi's Paradox.

Are we, indeed, alone in the Universe? Could it be that we are not alone but that we cannot know it? Could we deal with the horror of either answer?

Crossing the boundaries of time and space, the many threads of The Thing Itself weave both a terrifying adventure and a mind-blowing philosophical conundrum, reaffirming Adam Roberts' unique place in the SF canon.


At an Antarctic research station in the 1980s, two men at their end of their respective tethers, alone in this lovely if unlovable land but for one another and a copy of Emmanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, see something that cannot conceivably be:
There was a hint of—I'm going to say, claws, jaws, a clamping something. A maw. Not a tentacle, nothing so defined. Nor was it a darkness. It made a low, thrumming, chiming noise, like a muffled bell sounding underground, ding-ding, ding-ding. But this was not a sound-wave sort of sound. This was not a propagating expanding sphere of agitated air particles. It was a pulse in the mind. It was a shudder of the soul. (pp.25-26)
Sound familiar? Well, it is—for a fraction of a chapter.

Would you be surprised if I were to tell you that The Thing Itself is not—not even nearly—what it appears to be? If you answered yes to that question, I'd be given to guess you've never read an Adam Roberts novel. If you had, you'd know that this is not an author who likes to linger on any one thing for long, so though the first chapter has a handful of callbacks to John Carpenter's tentacular classic, the second is a short travelogue of sorts set in Germany almost a century earlier.

"Let me pick the threads of this story up again, rearrange the letters into a new form," (p.48) the next bit begins—which sentence, I'll confess, had me panicking preemptively at the prospect of a new narrative in every chapter. But although Roberts does repeatedly rewrite the rules of the tale he's telling, The Thing Itself is an easier and more coherent read than it appears.

Which isn't to say it's simple.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Coming Attractions | This Census-Taker by China Miéville

We all have our bad habits. Happily, I have far fewer as we approach the close of 2015 than I did in years previous, but there's at least one I haven't been able to give the boot to: my tendency to hoard books I have every reason to believe will be brilliant.

I'm still sitting, for instance, on a number of new-to-me novels by Guy Gavriel Kay and Catherynne M. Valente—a pair of my foremost favourite authors. But the knowledge that I'm entirely likely to love the likes of Palimpsest and The Lions of Al-Rassan has led to me saving them for a rainy day; a long-delayed rainy day during which I'll be able to luxuriate in these reading experiences rather than have to rush headlong towards their respective ends.

I can now add to that list Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville, another of the writers I'm not afraid to place on a pedestal. Admittedly I've already read a fair few of the short stories said collection brings together, but I'm hoarding the assemblage itself—not least because I wasn't sure when to expect Miéville to put out anything else.

I'm sure enough now, needless to say. A new novella, name of This Census-Taker, is coming out in January in the United States, and in the UK a full frustrating month later. I'll be buying the limited edition Subterranean Press are in the process of putting together, however, in large part because of Vincent Chong's typically terrific cover art:

Here's a bit about the book, too:
A boy ran down a hill path screaming. 
This running, screaming boy has witnessed something terrible, something so awful that he cannot even properly articulate it. All he can do is run. His story is investigated, but no evidence is found to support it, and so in the end, he is sent back. Back up that hill path to the site of his terror, to live with the parent who caused it.  
The boy tries to escape. He flees to a gang of local children but they can't help him. The town refuses to see his danger. He is alone.  
Then a stranger arrives. A stranger who claims his job is to ask questions, seek truth. Who can, perhaps, offer safety. Or whose offer may be something altogether different, something safety is no part of.  
In This Census-Taker, multiple award-winning writer China Miéville offers a story made of secrets and subtle reveals, of tragedy and bravery, of mysteries that shift when they appear to be known. It is a stunning work, full of strangeness and power.
Since I seem to have squirreled away plenty of Miéville already, I'll be reading This Census-Taker just as soon as humanly. You should too, to be sure.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

News | A BAMEless World Book Night

The notion of a “reading nation” is an unquestionably wonderful one, and making that fantasy a reality is what World Book Night is all about: celebrating “the enrichment that reading and books can bring to people’s lives” at the same time as “encouraging those who don’t already read for pleasure—an estimated 36% of adults—to get involved.”

How? Well, how else—by giving away hundreds of thousands of the things! Little wonder, then, that though it still struggles to reach some, the six-year old initiative has met with tremendous success. As Free Thought Research recently revealed, “80% of those who received a book on World Book Night had never read or read infrequently before the event, while 85% talked to others about books more, of which 47% reported an increase in the number of books they bought and 32% borrowed more from their local library.”

Thus, the announcement of the fifteen books to be distributed on the next World Book Night, on April 23rd, 2016, should have been a happy moment; a date to save. Instead, the lately-launched list—described by the organisers as “diverse” and “curated to appeal to a breadth of audiences”—has quite rightly come under fire for failing to feature a single Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) author.

In a blog post for The Bookseller, Nikesh Shukla, author and editor of Rife, dubbed World Book Night “a wonderfully charitable way of spreading your love of reading with friends and strangers alike,” but there’s a but, and it's a biggie:
Lists can do what prizes necessarily can’t—be inclusive. Prizes are effectively competitions. There’s an arbitrary standard of literary merit to be upheld. Publishers will submit subjectively to suit judges’ tastes. Lists, on the other hand, are a set of items, in this case books. World Book Night’s panels are looking for books that are “good, enjoyable, highly readable books with strong compelling narratives.” It seems problematic, thus, to not include any authors from BAME communities. 
If World Book Night is about getting that 36% of the country reading, what about the brown pound? It’s potentially a huge market, but one that will feel disenfranchised by not being visible in a high profile list such as this. For one, having BAME writers will encourage more BAME readers to become givers or to take a book, but also it’ll show that, on lists, we belong just as much as everyone else.
Saying that “some questions are too important to go unanswered,” and that this is one “we at World Book Night have been struggling with for some time,” Project Manager Rose Goddard responded to Shukla’s condemnation the next day:
World Book Night is an extraordinary industry initiative achieved through a wide coalition of authors, publishers, printers, distributors and other partners—not least the volunteer givers. However, like all charitable initiatives the funding model and submissions process which underpins it also shapes its delivery. The curation of the final books is not simply a question of choosing freely from publishers’ lists; publishers submit titles for the list and financially support the printing of the titles selected and the programme overall. Participation in the programme represents a significant monetary commitment for all of them, particularly for the smaller presses we’ve been delighted to welcome on board over the last few years. They all think very carefully about which books to suggest in the context of our drive to reach people who do not normally read for pleasure and WBN would not exist at all without the generous backing they provide. Each year we strive to strike a balance across the list. This year, despite our best efforts we have not been successful in respect of BAME writers.
In other words, World Book Night’s hands were tied.

But who by? Why, by the same, “increasingly out of touch” industry that was the subject of Spread the Word’s deeply dismaying survey of “writers from a variety of backgrounds, as well as literary agents, and mainstream and independent publishers” operating out of the UK.

In other words, as Writing the Future concluded, “despite all the hard work, good intentions and a ‘signing up’ to the principles of diversity, it seems that an old mono-culture still prevails” in publishing.

And none of this—none of this—is good enough.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Book Review | The Light That Gets Lost by Natasha Carthew

A small boy hiding in a cupboard witnesses something no child should ever see. He tries not to look but he still hears it. And when he comes out, there's no mistaking. His mum and dad have been killed. And though he's only small, he swears that he'll get revenge one day.

Years later, Trey goes to a strange camp that is meant to save troubled teenagers. It's packed with crazies, god-botherers, devoted felons and broken kids. Trey's been in and out of trouble ever since the day the bad thing happened, but he's not here for saving: this is where he'll find the man who did it. Revenge and healing, salvation and hell are a boiling, dangerous mix, and Trey finds himself drawn to a girl, a dream and the offer of friendship in the dark .


When you think about it, the business of living boils down to a string of decisions; seemingly insignificant decisions about little things, largely, like whether to take the left road or the right. Maybe one direction gets you to your destination without delay on this postulated day, and perhaps that matters, but taking the long way could lead, equally, to a chance meeting that leads to laughter that leads, at the last, to love.

What I mean to say is that, in a very real way, we're changed by our choices—made or broken or both. Take Tremain Pearce, the deeply damaged protagonist of Natasha Carthew's languid but ultimately uplifting latest. When a man murders his mother and father, and hurts his big brother Billy so seriously that he'll require round-the-clock care for the remainder of his days, Trey chooses to make the guy who got away with it pay: a decision that determines the lot of his lamentable life from that sickening instant on.
His short life, sketched and drawn wrong since memory began, had been rubbed down to this one moment in time; he was sitting at the brink of a place where there was no turning back and he was ready to jump. For Mum and Dad and Billy he was ready to leap into the unknown and all he knew of that unknown was it had one single solitary name and the name was revenge. (p.5)
In the name of revenge, then, Trey contrives a transfer from his foster family into the care of Camp Kernow, a faith-based prison facility which purports to teach difficult children a trade, where he has reason to believe the man who took his family from him has sought safety "in the cloth of God." (p.6)

Monday, 16 November 2015

Book Review | The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner

In the radically advanced post-human worlds of the Amaranthine Firmament, there is a contender to the Immortal throne: Aaron the Long-Life, the Pretender, a man who is not quite a man.

In the barbarous hominid kingdoms of the Prism Investiture, where life is short, cheap, and dangerous, an invention is born that will become the Firmament’s most closely kept secret.

Lycaste, a lovesick recluse outcast for an unspeakable crime, must journey through the Provinces, braving the grotesques of an ancient, decadent world to find his salvation.

Sotiris, grieving the loss of his sister and awaiting the madness of old age, must relive his twelve thousand years of life to stop the man determined to become Emperor.

Ghaldezuel, knight of the stars, must plunder the rarest treasure in the Firmament—the object the Pretender will stop at nothing to obtain.

The year is 14,647 AD. Humankind has changed, fractured, Prismed into a dozen breeds of fairy-tale grotesques, the chaos of expansion, war and ruin flinging humanity like bouncing sparks around the blackness of space. Man has been resculpted in a hundred different places, and the world as he knew it—this world—is gone for ever. (p.96)
This is the posthuman premise of The Promise of the Child: an extraordinary space opera which charts the inexorable fall of an assortment of autocratic immortals in a milieu so elaborately imagined that immersion in it is as risky as it is rewarding. Taken together with its dizzying depth and intelligence, the debut of Tom Toner, a twenty-something science-fiction savant with a sweet spot for shark teeth, has an ungodly amount going for it.

If Hannu Rajaniemi had come up with The Culture, it would have read rather like this, I think. But like The Quantum Thief before it, The Promise of the Child has an approachability problem: absent the warmth and wit that made Iain M. Banks' books beloved, it can come across as cold, calculated and at points impenetrable.

The first difficulty those who do dedicate themselves to Toner's text will need to deal with is its stupendous setting: "an impossibly delicate, eleven-light-year-wide ecosystem" (p.276) known as the Firmament. Here, the aforementioned immortals—the Amaranthine—hold sway; that is to say, they do today, if only by dint of "the ratio of butlers, gardeners, housekeepers and paying tenants to the riff-raff that inhabited the thin wilderness—the Prism Investiture—that surrounded their huge and desolate estate, the twenty-three Solar Satrapies." (p.276)

But the Amarantine's grip is slipping, and quickly...

Friday, 13 November 2015

Book Review | Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson

In a fractured Europe, new nations are springing up everywhere, some literally overnight. 

For an intelligence officer like Jim, it’s a nightmare. Every week or so a friendly power spawns a new and unknown national entity which may or may not be friendly to England’s interests. It’s hard to keep on top of it all. But things are about to get worse for Jim. 

A stabbing on a London bus pitches him into a world where his intelligence service is preparing for war with another universe, and a man has come who may hold the key to unlocking Europe’s most jealously-guarded secret...


A great many maps were made in Europe in the Middle Ages. Foremost among them were the Mappae Mundi: "maps of the world" meant not as navigational aids but to illustrate different principles—the earth's spherical shape, say, or its flora and fauna. Such scrolls represented repositories of medieval knowledge, but even the most definitive had their limits; here be lions and the like was oft-enscribed where the unknown roamed. The Ebstorfer Mappa Mundi, for instance, depicts a dragon to the east of Africa—also asps and basilisks, presumably because it was better to show something than nothing; better, according to that thought process, to invent the positively extraordinary than to admit the littlest deficiency.

In this day and age, we expect rather more from our maps than that. We demand that they are exact, in fact—detailed to the nearest nanometre at least! And perhaps they are. But you know what? I hope to God not. If we're to understand that modern maps are absolutely accurate, then there remains nothing about the world we do not know, and me... I love a bit of a mystery. Which might be why I loved Europe at Midnight. That and a hundred other reasons, even.

The second section of the sequence Dave Hutchinson kicked off with Europe in Autumn—an "awesome concoction of sci-fi and spies" which went on to be nominated for a whole hodgepodge of awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke—Europe at Midnight is damn near the definition of unpredictable. It doesn't pick up where its predecessor left off, with Rudi welcomed into another world; indeed, it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the glorified postman who was our last protagonist. Instead, the story, told by two brand new narrators, starts in a strange country—one of the milieu's proliferation of pocket nations, maybe—called the Campus:
The Campus was made up of four hundred Schools, scattered over an area about two hundred miles across and surrounded by mountains. Opinions differed over whether we sat in the bottom of the caldera of an ancient supervolcano, which was a charming thought, or the crater of a colossal prehistoric meteor strike, but to be honest nobody was thinking very hard about those theories at the moment. (p.29)
Why? Because the Campus is under new management following the overthrow of the oppressive Old Board, which left a mountain of mass graves in its wake, and an impoverished population. Unfortunately, well-meaning as it may be, the New Board doesn't have the slightest clue what it's doing, and though he has his own array of failings, no one knows this better than Richard, or rather Rupert of Hentzau—The Prisoner of Zenda, anyone?—"the worst Professor of Intelligence the Campus had ever had." (p.19)

Said sorry state of affairs isn't on him, however:
Part of the problem was that we just couldn't trust the few members of the Intelligence Faculty who were left alive, so I'd had to rebuild it from scratch, mostly with people who immediately changed their minds when they discovered that intelligence work was less like a John Buchan novel and more like being a particularly nosy village postmaster. (p.19)
Poor Rupe clearly has his work cut out for him, but when he discovers the hastily-burned bodies of a host of human beings genetically engineered to have working wings and whatnot, he puts his other assorted responsibilities on pause to look into a sickening conspiracy which not a few folks from Science City are complicit in. Little does Rupe realise that his investigation will culminate in a catastrophe that could collapse the entire Campus...

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Book Review | The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King

A master storyteller at his best—the O. Henry Prize winner Stephen King delivers a generous collection of stories, several of them brand-new, featuring revelatory autobiographical comments on when, why, and how he came to write (or rewrite) each story.

Since his first collection, Nightshift, published thirty-five years ago, Stephen King has dazzled readers with his genius as a writer of short fiction. In this new collection he assembles, for the first time, recent stories that have never been published in a book. He introduces each with a passage about its origins or his motivations for writing it.

There are thrilling connections between stories; themes of morality, the afterlife, guilt, what we would do differently if we could see into the future or correct the mistakes of the past. 'Afterlife' is about a man who died of colon cancer and keeps reliving the same life, repeating his mistakes over and over again. Several stories feature characters at the end of life, revisiting their crimes and misdemeanours. Other stories address what happens when someone discovers that he has supernatural powers—the columnist who kills people by writing their obituaries in 'Obits'; the old judge in 'The Dune' who, as a boy, canoed to a deserted island and saw names written in the sand, the names of people who then died in freak accidents. In 'Morality,' King looks at how a marriage and two lives fall apart after the wife and husband enter into what seems, at first, a devil’s pact they can win.

Magnificent, eerie, utterly compelling, these stories comprise one of King’s finest gifts to his constant reader. "I made them especially for you," says King. "Feel free to examine them, but please be careful. The best of them have teeth."


"I never feel the limitations of my talent so keenly as I do when writing short fiction," confesses Stephen King in the introduction to The Bazaar of Bad Dreams: an unusually introspective yet no less effective collection of eighteen variously terrifying tales, plus a few pieces of poetry, from the affable author of last year's similarly reflective Revival.

This is far from the first time King has discussed his "struggle to bridge the gap between a great idea and the realisation of that idea's potential," and although, as readers, we only have the end product to parse, the ideas the Edgar Award winner explores here—and the characters, and the narratives—are not at all inadequate. If anything, in dispensing with the hallmarks of Halloweeny horror to which his bibliography is so bound in order to investigate a goody bag of markedly more grounded goings-on, the stories brought together in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams number among King's most thoughtful and evocative.

Which isn't to say they ain't scary. They absolutely are! 'Premium Harmony,' 'Batman and Robin Have an Altercation' and 'Herman Wouk is Still Alive,' for instance, are still seething somewhere under this critic's skin, but said tales are scary in a more mundane way than you might imagine. Respectively, they address the mindless last fight between a man and his wife, the hellish senselessness of senility and suicide as a means of finally achieving freedom.

If the components of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams have a common denominator, and I dare say they do, it's death... but death by misadventure, or as a direct result of dubious decisions, or as something that simply comes, like the setting of the sun, as opposed to death by killer car, or wicked witch, or eldritch mist. According to Dave Calhoun, the elderly subject of 'Mr Yummy,' a bittersweet story set in an Assisted Living facility, "death personified isn't a skeleton riding on a pale horse with a scythe over his shoulder, but a hot dancehall kid with glitter on his cheeks." (p.350)

Death is depicted in countless other, equally ordinary ways over the course of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams: as a name sketched in the sand in 'The Dune,' an unpleasant smell in 'Under the Weather' and an increasingly meek mutt in 'Summer Thunder.' King hasn't suddenly come over all subtle, but this collection clearly chronicles a gentler, more contemplative author than the purveyor of penny dreadfuls whose part he has played with such panache in the past.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Book Review | Slade House by David Mitchell

Turn down Slade Alley—narrow, dank and easy to miss, even when you're looking for it. Find the small black iron door set into the right-hand wall. No handle, no keyhole, but at your touch it swings open. Enter the sunlit garden of an old house that doesn't quite make sense; too grand for the shabby neighbourhood, too large for the space it occupies.

A stranger greets you by name and invites you inside. At first, you won't want to leave. Later, you'll find that you can't.

This unnerving, taut and intricately woven tale by one of our most original and bewitching writers begins in 1979 and reaches its turbulent conclusion around Hallowe'en, 2015. Because every nine years, on the last Saturday of October, a 'guest' is summoned to Slade House. But why has that person been chosen, by whom and for what purpose?

The answers lie waiting in the long attic, at the top of the stairs...


Though there have ever been elements of the speculative in David Mitchell's fiction, his Man Booker Prize longlisted-last, released in 2014, was the first to fully embrace the form. Section by section, The Bone Clocks revealed itself to be "a soaring supernatural sextet" somewhat taken with time travel and very interested indeed in immortality. Unfortunately, the protracted finale of Mitchell's sixth made a middling meal of the same fantastical flourishes that had been so appealing when presented with more measure—an oversight I'm pleased to say he sets right in his laconic new novel.

Comprised of a collection of interlinked short stories, Slade House shares a world with The Bone Clocks—such that the Shaded Way has a pivotal role to play and Spot the Horologist is the game of the day—but where said setting was once an expansive canvas spattered with the stuff of science fiction, in this book it becomes the close-cropped backdrop of a hypnotic history of haunting.

For all that it has in common with The Bone ClocksSlade House's characters and narrative notions are its own—excepting, perhaps, the presence of little Nathan Bishop, the central character of the first section of this text: an extended version of the same short Mitchell shared by way of the "diabolical treble-strapped textual straitjacket" of Twitter in the lead up to the publication of its predecessor. 

Reiterated, 'The Right Sort' does not stop with Nathan lost in the gorgeous grounds of Slade House, which, like the text itself, are basically "a board game co-designed by M. C. Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever." (p.119) Instead, he ends up in the Victorian property proper, where the owners, Norah and Jonah, proceed to essentially sup his soul.

"It's not as if Norah and Jonah go 'Wooooooh' or drip ectoplasm or write scary messages in mirrors," (p.63) but they are, as it happens, as good as ghosts—or rather as bad.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Book Review | The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School by Kim Newman

A week after Mother found her sleeping on the ceiling, Amy Thomsett is delivered to her new school: Drearcliff Grange in Somerset. 

Although it looks like a regular boarding school, Amy learns that Drearcliff girls are special: the daughters of criminal masterminds, outlaw scientists and master magicians. Several of the pupils also have special gifts like Amy’s, and when one of the girls in her dormitory is abducted by a mysterious group in black hoods, Amy forms a secret, superpowered society called the Moth Club to rescue their friend. They soon discover that the Hooded Conspiracy runs through the School, and it's up to the Moth Club to get to the heart of it.


It's a credit to Kim Newman that he only rarely writes the novels you think he will. Just look at his last book: An English Ghost Story indubitably did what its title described, but it was—weirdly, wonderfully—as comical as it was creepy, and as interested in depicting the dysfunctional family it followed as it was the spectral presence that pushed them to the inevitable precipice.

Newman's newest—which purports to be the start of a series by Louise Magellan Teazle, the previous occupant of the haunted house at the heart of the aforementioned narrative—is not dissimilar in its evisceration of expectations. The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School appears to be one thing, namely a classical magical academy narrative along the lines of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. And it is! And it isn't.

"A week after Mother found her sleeping on the ceiling, Amy Thomsett was delivered to her new school. Like a parcel," (p.13) with exactly as much love and care as that imagery entails. Mother, you see, is not best pleased that her daughter has developed such particular Abilities:
In the months since she first came unstuck from the ground, Amy had been subjected to cold baths, weighted pinafores, long walks, hobbling boots and a buzzing, tickling electric belt. Leeches and exorcism were on the cards. Mother's whole idea in sending Amy to Drearcliff was to clamp down on floating. (p.22)
As it happens, however, Amy's new school—"a rambling, gloomy, ill-repaired estate on top of a cliff" (p.13)—is not at all what Mother had imagined. Instead, it's a place where unseemly tendencies are accepted. Encouraged, even, since Headmistress considers it Drearcliff's responsibility to help Amy and the other Unusuals she'll meet in the year Newman's novel narrates to find Applications for their array of Abilities.

Needless to say, not all of the students studying at Drearcliff are as welcoming as Dr. Swan...

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Book Review | A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe

It is perhaps a hundred years in the future, our civilization is gone, and another is in place in North America, but it retains many familiar things and structures. Although the population is now small, there is advanced technology, there are robots, and there are clones.

E. A. Smithe is a borrowed person. He is a clone who lives on a third-tier shelf in a public library, and his personality is an uploaded recording of a deceased mystery writer. Smithe is a piece of property, not a legal human.

A wealthy patron, Colette Coldbrook, takes him from the library because he is the surviving personality of the author of Murder on Mars. A physical copy of that book was in the possession of her murdered father, and it contains an important secret, the key to immense family wealth. It is lost, and Colette is afraid of the police. She borrows Smithe to help her find the book and to find out what the secret is. And then the plot gets complicated.


Gene Wolfe continues to play with the nature of narrators in his mostly notional new novel, a middling murder mystery explicated from the perspective of a posthumous author pretending to be a detective.

The story starts with Colette Coldbrook: sweetheart teacher, well-spoken socialite and, in the early parts of the narrative, something of a survivor. A year or so ago, she suddenly lost her mother; a little later, her father suffered a suspicious heart attack; and in the aftermath of that latter's passing, her beloved brother was straight-up strangled. She has no-one to turn to, now, and so many questions—not least about the unassuming book Conrad Coldbrook Junior found in Conrad Coldbrook Senior's safe.

Colette believes—with good reason, even—that Murder on Mars may be the key to understanding what happened to her family, and perhaps why, but beyond that, she doesn't have a clue what to do. The thought of reading this fictional fossil doesn't cross her ultra-modern mind for a minute. Instead, she does the other obvious thing: she rents out a so-called "reclone" of the author of the novel, E. A. Smithe, from her local library, and asks him to do the dirty work.

Now it might be that Smithe comes complete with most of his long-dead predecessor's memories, but he doesn't remember much about Murder on Mars—and to make matters worse, he's a copy of a crime writer rather than anything resembling a detective himself:
I was not the man I thought I was, the one whose name I used—whose name I still use right now, for that matter. I was somebody else, a kid who had been grown from that guy's DNA and loaded up with his memories, phony memories of things that never happened to me and never could happen to me. (p.36)
Thus, the investigation into the curious case of the Coldbrooks proceeds in frustrating fits and stuttering starts, regularly interrupted by Smithe's soul-searching and set back substantially when Colette is (apparently) kidnapped. "The more I thought about it the surer I got that there was something funny going on, but I could not even guess what it was." (p.106)

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Book Review | Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson

Bats of the Republic is an illuminated novel of adventure, featuring hand-drawn maps and natural history illustrations, subversive pamphlets and science-fictional diagrams, and even a nineteenth-century novel-within-a-novel—an intrigue wrapped in innovative design.

In 1843, fragile naturalist Zadock Thomas must leave his beloved in Chicago to deliver a secret letter to an infamous general on the front lines of the war over Texas. The fate of the volatile republic, along with Zadock’s future, depends on his mission. When a cloud of bats leads him off the trail, he happens upon something impossible...

Three hundred years later, the world has collapsed and the remnants of humanity cling to a strange society of paranoia. Zeke Thomas has inherited a sealed envelope from his grandfather, an esteemed senator. When that letter goes missing, Zeke engages a fomenting rebellion that could free him—if it doesn’t destroy his relationship, his family legacy, and the entire republic first.

As their stories overlap and history itself begins to unravel, a war in time erupts between a lost civilization, a forgotten future, and the chaos of the wild. Bats of the Republic is a masterful novel of adventure and science fiction, of elliptical history and dystopian struggle, and, at its riveting core, of love.


In a world where the Powers That Be have deemed any and all secrets illegal, Zeke Thomas must go against the flow he's always followed when he inherits a sealed envelope containing information which could sink the system that's kept humanity alive since the Collapse.

Meanwhile, in the year 1843, Zeke's time-removed relative, Zadock, has to leave his one true love languishing in her sickbed to deliver a highly sensitive letter to a legendary general embedded deep in the disputed territory of Texas.

An incredibly presented "illuminated novel" which, like last year's S., blends form and function with history and mystery to realise a reading experience that amazes from the first page, Bats of the Republic comes from the co-founder of a small press specialising in "strange and beautiful fiction and nonfiction" with a sideline in detail-oriented design, so the unusual shape Zachary Thomas Dodson's debut takes shouldn't be such a surprise.

And yet, the metatextual elements that make this reflexive narrative remarkable are so utterly abundant that they create a state of fantastic stupefaction. In advance of the actual start of the story, we're treated to an exquisite endpaper mosaic, two discrete family trees, a meticulous map charting Zadock's ill-fated flight, a selection of handwritten letters, the first of a few newspaper clippings, and the title page of a whole other novel, namely The City-State by E. Anderson—all of which is as good as guaranteed to make one go um. 

And Bats of the Republic has hardly even begun!

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Book Review | Little Sister Death by William Gay

David Binder is a young, successful writer living in Chicago and suffering from writer’s block. He stares at the blank page, and the blank page stares back—until inspiration strikes in the form of a ghost story that captivated him as a child.

With his pregnant wife and young daughter in tow, he sets out to explore the myth of Virginia Beale, Faery Queen of the Haunted Dell. But as his investigation takes him deeper and deeper into the legacy of blood and violence that casts its shadow over the old Beale farm, Binder finds himself obsessed with a force that’s as wicked as it is seductive.

A stirring literary rendition of Tennessee’s famed Curse of the Bell Witch, Little Sister Death skilfully toes the line between Southern Gothic and horror, and further cements William Gay’s legacy as not only one of the South’s finest writers, but among the best that American literature has to offer.


As his friend Tom Franklin notes in the intimate introduction with which Little Sister Death begins, the late, great William Gay's lost horror novel "is the most metafictional thing [he] ever wrote—it's about a writer, obsessed with a haunting, who moves his family to the site" (p.xvii) of said unearthly events.

Gay, for his part, didn't go quite as far as that, but he had "long been fascinated with the Bell Witch phenomenon in Tennessee, and even had his own encounter with, perhaps, an echo of the Bell Witch herself." (pp.xvi-xvii) That true tale acts at a capstone on the unsettling story at the centre of Little Sister Death, but there's a goodly amount of truth, too, in the several hundred posthumously published pages preceding the author's authentic account of his own eerie experience.

Like William Gay, whose fearsome first novel won the 1989 James A. Michener Memorial Prize, the debut of Little Sister Death's central character David Binder is something of a success. Not necessarily commercially—it's no bestseller—but it wins enough awards to keep Binder and his kin in business.

Sadly, the critically acclaimed young author's second novel does not cement his literary legacy in the way Provinces of Night did in Gay's case. Instead, it's rejected, and rather than redrafting the manuscript, a briefly defeated Binder takes his agent's advice to "write a genre novel [...] something we can sell to the paperback house" (p.22) to heart. A trip to his local bookstore later, he has his subject: the Beale Haunting—Gay's thinly veiled rendition of the so-called Curse of the Bell Witch, which, for what it's worth, The Blair Witch Project is believed to have been based on.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Book Review | The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

What if you aren't the Chosen One? The one who's supposed to fight the zombies, or the soul-eating ghosts, or whatever this new thing is, with the blue lights and the death?

What if you're like Mikey, who just wants to graduate and go to prom and maybe finally work up the courage to ask Henna out before someone goes and blows up the high school—again. 

And what if there are problems bigger than this week's end of the world, and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life? Even if your best friend might just be the God of mountain lions...


In the suggestive sentence attached to the first chapter of The Rest of Us Just Live Here, "the Messenger of the Immortals arrives in a surprising shape, looking for a permanent Vessel; and after being chased by her through the woods, indie kid Finn meets his final fate." (p.9)

The world is ending again, evidently. But never mind the Messenger—the impending apocalypse its presence heralds is not the point of Patrick Ness' latest revelation. There are indeed dark times ahead for the friends of indie kid Finn—this Immortals nonsense will lead to any number of melodramatic deaths—but the household heroes of The Rest of Us Just Live Here are safely outside of said circle.

That's not to say their days lack drama, or tragedy, but like you and me, reader, rather than the saviours at the centre of so many Chosen One stories, just living keeps them plenty busy.
We yearn the same, wish the same. We're just as screwed-up and brave and false and loyal and wrong and right as anyone else. And even if there's no one in my family or my circle of friends who's going to be the Chosen One or the Beacon of Peace or whatever the hell it's going to be next time around, I reckon there are a lot more people like me than there are indie kids with unusual names and capital-D Destinies. (p.35)
"Your humble narrator" (p.55) Mikey Mitchell has hit the nail on the head, here, and the notion that normal is not the same as insignificant informs every last aspect of the new novel from the mind behind A Monster Calls.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Book Review | The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Stan and Charmaine are a married couple trying to stay afloat in the midst of economic and social collapse. Living in their car, surviving on tips from Charmaine's job at a dive bar, they're increasingly vulnerable to roving gangs, and in a rather desperate state. So when they see an advertisement for the Positron Project in the town of Consilience—a "social experiment" offering stable jobs and a home of their own—they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for this suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month, swapping their home for a prison cell.

At first, all is well. But slowly, unknown to the other, Stan and Charmaine develop a passionate obsession with their counterparts, the couple that occupy their home when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire take over, and Positron looks less like a prayer answered and more like a chilling prophecy fulfilled.


You can buy a bunch of stuff with money. You can buy board games, boxed sets, hot hatchbacks and huge houses—an assortment of objects and accessories and investments likely to lift your spirits for a few minutes and, if you're lucky, a whole lot longer. But, The Heart Goes Last asks, does that mean you can buy happiness? Its answer: hah!

Stan and Charmaine wouldn't have had any need to, till recently. When they were first married, their futures were bright; their futures were right. "They were so happy then. It was just like an ad." (p.276) The newlyweds were even considering kids when the bottom went out from under the economy and civilised society practically collapsed.
They were so sweet then, so hopeful; so young, not like the way [they are] now. And then it hadn't worked out, because of circumstances. And it was a strain, so many tensions, what with the car and everything, but they'd stayed together because they had each other and they loved each other. (p.153)
At the start of Margaret Atwood's first standalone work of full-length fiction for fifteen years, Stan and Charmaine have almost nothing but their love for one another—and even that bond has been stronger. Then they hear about something called the Positron project, an experimental private enterprise which promises a new way today and, if it works, a new world for the future:
Rather than festering in some deserted condo crawling with black mould or crouching in a stench-filled trailer where you'd spend the nights beating off dead-eyed teenagers armed with broken bottles and ready to murder you for a handful of cigarette butts, you'd have gainful employment, three wholesome meals a day, a lawn to tend, a hedge to trim, the assurance that you were contributing to the general good, and a toilet that flushed. In a word, or rather three words: A MEANINGFUL LIFE. (p.42)
The only trade-off is that participants must spend every other month in a prison—and while they're away, their so-called "alternates" come out to play...

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Book Review | Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

The Moon wants to kill you. Whether it's being unable to pay your per diem for your allotted food, water, and air, or you just get caught up in a fight between the Moon's ruling corporations, the Five Dragons. You must fight for every inch you want to gain in the Moon's near feudal society. And that is just what Adriana Corta did.

As the leader of the Moon's newest "dragon," Adriana has wrested control of the Moon's Helium-3 industry from the Mackenzie Metal corporation and fought to earn her family's new status. Now, at the twilight of her life, Adriana finds her corporation, Corta Helio, surrounded by the many enemies she made during her meteoric rise. If the Corta family is to survive, Adriana's five children must defend their mother's empire from her many enemies.,. and each other.


I spent a little less than a week reading Luna: New Moon. The first hundred pages took me five difficult days; the remainder I sucked up like a sponge in a single sitting on the sixth; and on the seventh day, I rested, not because Ian McDonald's new novel is exhausting—though it is, initially—but because its denouement is so devastating I was rather a wreck by then.

Rarely have I finished a book feeling so differently about it as I did in the beginning. If I'd tried to review Luna: New Moon while picking my way through its tremendously dense first third, I'd have struggled to recommend it in any respect. Now, it's all I can do to resist shouting GAME OF THRONES IN SPACE, as I did on Twitter when I put paid to its last masterful chapter, and signing off with a statement of its unadulterated greatness. 

But maybe I should explain.

Though I can see this story taking a lot longer than intended to tell, just as George R. R. Martin's bestselling fantasy saga has, Luna: New Moon is, at the time of this writing, the first volume of a proposed duology that should do for Earth's only natural satellite what McDonald did for India in River of Gods, Brazil in Brasyl, and Istanbul in his last adult narrative: The Dervish House.

In the five years since that latter won both the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the BSFA for Best Novel, McDonald has been busy with the Everness trilogy: a reality-spanning romp written for young adults but read by any number of readers older even than me. And perhaps that was the root cause of my problem with this novel; after Planesrunner, Be My Enemy and Empress of the Sun, I'd become accustomed to the aforementioned author at his most approachable. 

Luna: New Moon is no such thing, sadly.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Book Review | The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

Baru Cormorant believes any price is worth paying to liberate her people—even her soul.

When the Empire of Masks conquers her island home, overwrites her culture, criminalises her customs, and murders one of her fathers, Baru vows to swallow her hate, join the Empire's civil service, and claw her way high enough to set her people free.

Sent as an Imperial agent to distant Aurdwynn, another conquered country, Baru discovers it's on the brink of rebellion. Drawn by the intriguing duchess Tain Hu into a circle of seditious dukes, Baru may be able to use her position to help. As she pursues a precarious balance between the rebels and a shadowy cabal within the Empire, she orchestrates a do-or-die gambit with freedom as the prize.

But the cost of winning the long game of saving her people may be far greater than Baru imagines...


I like to think of myself as a relatively well-mannered man, but if, a year or so ago, you'd told me that one of 2015's very finest fantasies would come from the same creator who gave the video game Destiny its at best forgettable flavour, I dare say I may have laughed in your face.

That would have been my mistake, because The Traitor Baru Cormorant (AKA The Traitor in the UK) is, as it happens, practically masterful—not a word I can recall deploying to describe a debut in all the years I've been a book reviewer, but in the complete and total control Seth Dickinson demonstrates over his intricately crafted narrative and characters, this is exactly that: a first novel so clever and subversive that it bears comparison to K. J. Parker's best and most messed-up efforts.

The titular traitor is but an innocent in the beginning. Beloved by her mother, Pinion, and her fathers, Salm and Solit, Baru Cormorant is a precocious so-and-so at seven, with a passion for mathematics and a habit of staring at the stars, so when the Masquerade invades tiny Taranoke—bearing life-changing gifts, initially, such as sanitation and better education—she's secretly pleased.

Unfortunately, a plague waits in the wake of the Masquerade—a plague that devastates the poor Taranoki folk—and the schooling Baru was so happy to have has a couple of cruel and unusual caveats attached, not least the notion of the "unhygenic mating" (p.49) her fathers apparently practice. Add to that the punishments imposed by the empire upon unlicensed lovers, which is to say sterilisation and "reparatory childbearing," whereby women are "confiscated and sown like repossessed earth." (p.187)

These rites are revolting and Baru knows it, but to stand a chance of expanding her horizons, and ultimately improving the lot of those like her, she holds her tongue. Even when her father Salm mysteriously disappears, she keeps her own counsel. In that moment, though, Baru turns on the Masquerade—she just doesn't tell anyone about her change of heart. Rather, she rededicates herself to its perverse principles, thinking that "if the Masquerade could not be stopped by spear or treaty, she would change it from within." (p.39)

Thursday, 24 September 2015

The Scotsman Abroad | We Need to Talk

I suppose it's fair to say that the summer's behind us. The summer holidays certainly are.

For most folks—most adults, I mean—that's got to be good news, because instead of treasuring them as we used to do, we tolerate them, if we're honest. The weather is an almost constant disappointment, except for the midges and the mozzies. The entertainment we all enjoy the rest of the year round goes away, and in its place? Big budget, lowest common denominator nonsense that leaves the likes of us with The Great British Bake-Off and little else to distract ourselves from the influx of children suddenly under our feet in the street.

But as a full-time teacher, a regular reviewer of books—books that take me ten times as long to read as they used to do—a columnist for and, lest we forget, a boyfriend to my better half of damn near a decade, the summer holidays have, in recent years, come to mean something very real to me: a chance to make some changes. To finally follow through on a few long put off promises. Maybe even realise the dreams I've dreamed for decades.

The thing of it is, the summer holidays also represent an opportunity to rest, and most years, that's about all I end up doing.

This year, though, I figured fuck it, I'll catch my breath when I'm dead, and in the seven weeks of the summer holidays, I made some of those long-delayed changes. I kept a couple promises—to myself and my nearest and dearest. Readers: I even realised a dream!

Not to start the show with the show-stopper, but folks, I finally stopped smoking: a nasty-ass habit I picked up when I was 15 and swore to shake before it was too late.

I started running. First a mile every morning. Then two when I found one wasn't quite cutting it. These days, I don't feel right about my routine until I've finished a 5k.

Last but not least, like many readers, I've always nursed notions of writing stories of my own. Truth be told, I don't know if I have a novel in me, but as it happens, I do have a few short stories. One of those—the first work of fiction I ever submitted, in fact—a 2,000 word tale called 'Let's Play'—is widely available as of today.
We Need to Talk features original work from Daisy Buchanan, Robert Sharp, Kim Curran, Andreina Cordani, Amy McLellan and over a dozen more—all stories inspired by (very) difficult conversations! 
All proceeds are given to the women's cancer charity, The Eve Appeal. September is Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month, and [Jurassic London, in collaboration with Kindred, is] proud to support their efforts. 
The lovely paperbacks are exclusively available through Foyles, who are currently selling the book at a chunky discount (seriously, it is under a fiver). For those of a more digital inclination, the ebooks can be found on and
Just to be published would have made my summer. To be published by a publisher I have such immense respect for, alongside an array of properly awesome authors, and in support of such a phenomenally positive cause?

I can hardly begin to express how very much being featured in We Need to Talk means to me, but it'd mean that much more if I could share it with a few of you.

If you like it, let me know!

Friday, 18 September 2015

Book Review | Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

In the near future, after a storm strikes New York City, the strangenesses begin. A down-to-earth gardener finds that his feet no longer touch the ground. A graphic novelist awakens in his bedroom to a mysterious entity that resembles his own sub-Stan Lee creation. Abandoned at the mayor’s office, a baby identifies corruption with her mere presence, marking the guilty with blemishes and boils. A seductive gold digger is soon tapped to combat forces beyond imagining.

Unbeknownst to them, they are all descended from the whimsical, capricious, wanton creatures known as the jinn, who live in a world separated from ours by a veil. Centuries ago, Dunia, a princess of the jinn, fell in love with a mortal man of reason. Together they produced an astonishing number of children, unaware of their fantastical powers, who spread across generations in the human world.

Once the line between worlds is breached on a grand scale, Dunia’s children and others will play a role in an epic war between light and dark spanning a thousand and one nights—or two years, eight months, and twenty-eight nights. It is a time of enormous upheaval, in which beliefs are challenged, words act like poison, silence is a disease, and a noise may contain a hidden curse


In Salman Rushdie's first novel for older readers in something like seven years—an onion-skinned thing at once wise, wilful and winningly whimsical—a great storm signals the end of the world as we know it.

A state of strangeness reigns in the wake of this otherworldly weather. Lightning springs from fingers; a would-be graphic novelist dreams the superhero he conceived into being; an abandoned baby bestows "blemishes and boils" on those who tell tall tales in her pint-sized presence; meanwhile, an elderly gentleman who calls himself Geronimo wakes up one day able to levitate: which all sounds quite delightful, doesn't it?

Don't be fooled, folks. Many will perish in the next two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights. Wars will be fought and an awful lot—not least lives—will be lost. But every ending has a new beginning built in, and perhaps a better world will arise from the ashes of the last. Maybe Rushdie's plea for a future "ruled by reason, tolerance, magnanimity, knowledge, and restraint" will be accepted rather than outright rejected. Stranger things have happened.

The overarching narrative of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (hereafter just Two Years, if you please) is an encapsulation of exactly that argument—between the rational and the unreasonable. Representing these opposing perspectives are two long-dead men: the intellectual Idb Rushd and Ghazali of Tus, a sinister, fire-and-brimstone figure whose irrational rhetoric made a laughing stock of the aforementioned philosopher.

But Rushd's life was not all strife. For a little while, when he lived—a millennium or so ago, don't you know—he loved, and was loved by, a beautiful woman called Dunia who bore him many children.
Being a man of reason, he did not guess that she was a supernatural creature, a jinnia, of the tribe of female jinn, the jiniri: a grand princess of that tribe, on an earthly adventure, pursuing her fascination with human men in general and brilliant ones in particular.
Generations later, in the present day, their disparate descendants—all one thousand and one of them—are all that stands between humanity and the dark jinn that declare war on the world at the behest of the disgusted dust that was once Ghazali.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Book Review | A Cold Silence by Alison Littlewood

Ben Cassidy has strict instructions from his mother, Cass, never to return to his childhood home of Darnshaw. But when an old friend dies, he returns to investigate a computer game she was playing named Acheron.

Acheron claims it will give you all that you ask for, something Gaila, Ben's sister, knows all too well. But there is a price, and hers is to get Ben to London.

As Ben and his friends delve ever deeper into the world of Acheron, good motivations and morality begin to slip, and they find themselves falling further into corruption. Ben and Gaila could save them all, but the price for doing so might just be too high to pay...


Hard to believe it's only been three years since A Cold Season launched Alison Littlewood into modern horror's hallowed halls, given the indelible impression she's made to date. Her debut, selected as it was for the Richard and Judy Book Club, was widely-read and basically beloved; the British Fantasy Society deemed Path of Needles one of the best novels of the year of its release; and The Unquiet House was shortlisted for a Shirley Jackson, which award Littlewood just won for her contribution to the inaugural Spectral Book of Horror Stories.

Long story short, this lady's going places. But first, because her fans demanded it, I gather, A Cold Silence ushers us back to Darnshaw—in the company of the central characters who visited that village of vacuum black and icy white in A Cold Season, even—for a deal with the devil that did next to nothing for me, I'm afraid.

A Cold Silence kicks off a decade and change later: single mother Cass may have escaped the clutches of a cult with the darkest of designs on her little boy, Ben, but the years have been anything but easy on the Cassidy family.

Friday, 4 September 2015

The Scotsman Abroad | On Barker's Bite

Remember when Clive Barker mattered? 
Time was, he stood shoulder to shoulder with Stephen King and his kith and kin as one of the heavy hitters of popular horror. In the late '80s and all through the '90s, his seamless weaving of the stuff of sex together with the inevitable perversity of death led to a string of critical and commercial successes including Weaveworld, Cabal, Imagica and Everville. But over the years, the man became a brand. The macabre amalgam of visceral violence and exotic erotica that set his narratives apart from the pack at the start had, by the time of its samey culmination in Coldheart Canyon, diminished his fiction. Barker was about to lose his bite—such that it was a relief, really, when he changed gears completely.
As a long time admirer of the aforementioned author, and a die-hard fan of the Hellraiser franchise—up to and including the stupidest sequels—I had high hopes for The Scarlet Gospels, which sees Clive Barker taking ownership of the High Priest of Pain for the first time since, I think, the first of the films.

If anything, my expectations were raised when, after something like a decade on the drawing board, The Scarlet Gospels saw the light of day this past May—and what do you know? It was relatively well received. Most of the reviews I perused were good going on great, so when I finally got around to reading Barker's first proper horror novel—excepting Mister B. Gone and the Abarat books—in nearly fifteen years, I was basically beside myself with excitement.

And you know what? That first chapter? Fucking. Fantastic. Classic Clive Barker.

But from there on out, I'm afraid, The Scarlet Gospels is "business as usual, at best." And the rest of the time, "it reads like an unsightly reminder of a writer past his prime."

Strange Horizons has my full review. Please do click on through.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Book Review | Dream Paris by Tony Ballantyne

Anna Sinfield marched into the parks, when Angel Tower burned and Dream London fell. She marched to free the city, to end the madness, to find her mother and father. The day was won, but her parents—and thousands like them—are still missing, lost to the Dream World.

And now she has a chance to get them back. A man with gemlike eyes has walked into her life, wearing a bespoke suit and bearing a terrible scroll. Mr Twelvetrees claims to know where the missing Londoners are; but to find them, Anna has to give up a life she’s started to rebuild and go into the Dream World itself. Into another Paris, where history has been repeating itself for two hundred years.

Vive La Révolution! 


In literature and to a lesser extent in life, London has had a tough time of it in recent years: it's rioted and rebelled; it's been burned, bombed and buried; it's risen to great heights and, inevitably, it's fallen. And fallen. And fallen.

But you can't keep a city like Great Britain's biggest down—even when a living nightmare threatens to take its place, as Tony Ballantyne documented in Dream London. A notable novel which explored a notion not dissimilar to that proposed by the Philip K. Dick Award nominee's pre-eminent peer in the weird, namely the incursion of second place into a single space—see The City & the City by China Mieville—Dream London demonstrated the resilience and the spirit of even the most impoverished inhabitants of my country's capital.
If you weren't here, if you didn't live through the changes, if you didn't experience how the streets moved around at night or how people's personalities were subtly altered, if you didn't see the casual cruelty, the cheapening of human life, the way that easy stereotypes took hold of people... if you weren't there, you're never going to understand what it was like. (p.13)
Anna Sinfield remembers, however. Anna Sinfield will never forget. And yet, having lost her mother and her father and her friends to the dream world's dark designs, she still found the strength in herself to take to the streets. Alongside thousands of other like-minded Londoners, she marched into the parks when all was almost lost, the better to bring down the Angel Tower and stand against the source of the so-called incursion.

Dream London has been receding steadily ever since. The streets are straightening; people's personalities are reasserting themselves; human life means something once more. But for Anna, the nightmare is far from over, I'm afraid. When a man with fly eyes called Mr Twelvetrees presents her with a prophesy that promises she'll be reunited with her missing mum in Dream Paris, she packs a bag without missing a beat and sets her sights on the City of Lights.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Book Review | The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

In the late twentieth century, the streets of Paris are lined with haunted ruins, the aftermath of a Great War between arcane powers. The Grand Magasins have been reduced to piles of debris, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine has turned black with ashes and rubble and the remnants of the spells that tore the city apart. But those that survived still retain their irrepressible appetite for novelty and distraction, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over France’s once grand capital.

Once the most powerful and formidable, House Silverspires now lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.

Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen angel; an alchemist with a self-destructive addiction; and a resentful young man wielding spells of unknown origin. They may be Silverspires’ salvation—or the architects of its last, irreversible fall. And if Silverspires falls, so may the city itself.


Hands up if you've heard of Aliette de Bodard.

Good. That's a whole lot of hands. Hands down, however, if you've never actually read her.

As I suspected; hardly half as many. But don't feel bad, folks. Despite having written a trilogy of full-on, fifteenth-century Aztec fantasy, de Bodard is most known for her short stories—especially 'Immersion', which swept the speculative awards scene in 2013—and as big a fan of such fiction as I am, the form seems to to be going nowhere slowly, at least in terms of its readership.

Not so the genre novel. The House of Shattered Wings, then, is just the thing: a suspenseful supernatural narrative focusing on fallen angels as they fight for power in a post-apocalyptic Paris that boasts brilliant worldbuilding, powerful prose and a cast of terrifically conflicted characters. It's the year's best urban fantasy by far, and if it doesn't embiggen de Bodard's base, I don't know what will.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Book Review | The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

The universe is a forest, patrolled by numberless and nameless predators. In this forest, others are hell, a dire existential threat. Stealth is survival. Any civilisation that reveals its location is prey.

Earth has. And the others are on the way.

The Trisolarian fleet has left their homeworld and will arrive... in four centuries' time. But the sophons, their extra-dimensional emissaries, are already here and have infiltrated human society and and derailed scientific progress. Only the individual human mind remains immune to the sophons. This is the motivation for the Wallfacer Project, a last-ditch defence that grants four individuals almost absolute power to design secret strategies, hidden through deceit and misdirection from Earth and Trisolaris alike. Three of the Wallfacers are influential statesmen and scientists, but the fourth is a total unknown. Luo Ji, an unambitious Chinese astronomer, is baffled by his new status. All he knows is that he's the one Wallfacer that Trisolaris wants dead.


If The X-Files taught me one thing, it was to be afraid—to be very afraid—of escalators. I learned early to take the stairs, or else be consumed by Eugene Tooms. But the recently revived TV series taught me at least two things, in truth: that, and the fact that thinking of Earth as the cradle of all creation in the unimaginable vastness of the galaxy is an act of absolute arrogance.

I want to believe, in other words. Absent any evidence, however, belief is a difficult state to sustain. It necessitates a leap of faith I've never been able to take—though that's no longer a problem for the characters at the heart of the startling second volume of Cixin Liu's translated trilogy, as they, and humanity as a whole, have had that proof.

In The Three-Body Problem, our wildest dreams were realised in the same second as our worst fears: they are out there, and now that they know we're here, they're coming... coming to wipe out every last trace of humanity from the galaxy.

The thing is, they're going to take four hundred years to get here.

But when they do? We're toast, folks.
The assembly fell into a prolonged silence. Ahead of them stretched the leaden road of time, terminating somewhere in the mists of the future, where all they could see were flickering flames and the lustre of blood. The brevity of a human lifespan tormented them as never before, and their hearts soared above the vault of time to join with their descendants and plunge into blood and fire in the icy cold of space, the eventual meeting place for the souls of all soldiers. (p.43)
In this way, a great wave of defeatism sweeps the people, not least because they know that nothing they do now will have the slightest impact on the Trisolarans. The present-day generation's only potential legacy is laying out the groundwork for humanity to develop in centuries ahead. Today, the knowledge base just isn't there, nor indeed will it ever equal the quantum technology bolstering the Trisolarans' far superior force. That's because of the sophons: a mass of microscopic particles which interfere in certain experiments, establishing an energy-based barrier beyond which scientists simply cannot cross. We haven't hit it yet, but we will, one day. And then? Well, it'll be The End, my friends.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Book Review | The Good, the Bad and the Smug by Tom Holt

New Evil.

Same as the Old Evil, but with better PR.

Mordak isn't bad, as far as goblin kings go, but when someone, or something, starts pumping gold into the human kingdoms it puts his rule into serious jeopardy. Suddenly he's locked in an arms race with a species whose arms he once considered merely part of a calorie-controlled diet.

Helped by an elf with a background in journalism and a masters degree in being really pleased with herself, Mordak sets out to discover what on earth (if indeed, that's where he is) is going on. He knows that the truth is out there. If only he could remember where he put it.


Evil just isn't what it was.

Used to be, you could slaughter a dwarf and gnaw his gnarly bones all the way home without attracting any undesirable attention. Now? Not so much. It's a new world, you know? And it might just be that the new world needs a new breed of evil.

In The Good, the Bad and the Smug, Tom Holt—aka K. J. Parker—proposes exactly that as the premise of a satirical and sublimely self-aware fairytale that brings together the wit and the wickedness of the author's alter ego with the wordplay and the whimsy which have made the YouSpace series such a sweet treat so far.

Readers, meet Mordak: King of the Goblins, and winner of a special award at this year's Academy of Darkness do. The prize is just the icing on the (unfortunately metaphorical) cake; he's been turning a whole lot of heads of late. Why? Well:
It wasn't just Mordak's arbitrary and bewildering social reforms—universal free healthcare at rusty spike of delivery, for crying out loud—though those were intriguing enough to baffle even the shrewdest observers, frantically speculating about the twisted motives that underlay such a bizarre agenda. It was the goblin himself who'd caught the public imagination. Mordak had it; the indefinable blend of glamour, prestige, menace and charm that go to make a genuinely world-class villain. (p.3)
It isn't all he has to offer either, for Mordak is also the face of New Evil: a "caring and compassionate" (p.281) agenda he's in the middle of forcing down folks' throats when his eternal enemies—is there anything worse than people, really?—suddenly find themselves filthy rich. So filthy rich, in fact, that they could cause a proper problem for the goblins.

This is an obstacle Mordak simply must overcome if he's to have a chance of realising his reforms. To wit, together with Efluviel, an elf who'd do almost anything to get her job as a journalist back—a job Mordak can give her as easily as he took it away in the first place—the King strikes out on an unexpected journey in order to expose the source of all the goddamn gold the humans have gotten their grubby paws on.