Friday, 29 March 2013

Quoth the Scotsman | Joseph D'Lacey on The Dead City

On a sort of walkabout around the wasted wilds that are an integral aspect of Black Feathers, Megan and her master Mr Keeper—characters who live off the land long after the end the world has come and gone—happen upon a sight unlike anything she's ever seen.

It's simply a city, or rather the remains of one, but from Megan's perspective—a perfect POV for Joseph D'Lacey to make plain his apocalyptic point—this devastated landscape feels alien, mythical and malevolent.

Here's some of what she sees:
"A procession of skeletal towers, cages rising high up into the air, make an angled line across the land. From each tall framework, three pairs of arms stretch out to either side. These arms grip black ropes which connect every tower. Where the ropes are broken they hang earthwards like whips. A few of the towers are damaged too or buckled, leaning to the left or right. Megan thinks of giants; blind, drunken giants using ropes to guide themselves across the land. 
"Following the motionless march of the giants is a huge slate grey path with lines painted onto it. Dozens of people could walk abreast along it. In many places the path is broken or cracked, black chasms like hungry mouths wait for travellers to fall in. Along the path are things she has only seen in her visions—enclosed cars without their horse or oxen to pull them. Cars. That was what the boy had called them. 
"The path and the giants have one destination: a village. But a village so large it would hold more people than Megan knows how to count. The outlying areas of the village are made up of dwellings around mazes of smaller tracks. Hundreds and hundreds of dwellings in each area. Hundreds of tracks leading back to buildings many times the height of those nearest to Megan. Hundreds of dwellings rising high into the air, thousands of square wind-eyes, like black lifeless sockets. 
"There is more, much more, but all of it is silent and dead. She's never seen an absence of life like this in the day world. It makes her cold inside." (pp.221-2)
I'm a bit of a country mouse myself, so I see what Megan means. Urban environments are, after all, absolutely artificial, if not utterly other. They speak of the indelible mark we've made on the world, whether for good or for ill.

In any case, I hadn't thought about the city as a dead thing before Black Feathers, and it's an interesting idea, isn't it?

Angry Robot Books are poised to publish Joseph D'Lacey's latest in early April in the UK, and I'll be reviewing it in full at a later date—so do stay tuned.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Guest Post | Clifford Beal on Fact vs. Fiction in the Curriculum

Gideon's Angel was fantastic fun. But if you've read the preamble to my review, you'll see that I got rather distracted by the idea of real history, and how we teach it.

As an English tutor when I'm not reviewing books, a large part of my day job involves finding ways to get the kids I work with interested in reading and writing, and that's rarely as easy as it seems. Few can see past the stress and the pressure of exams, because that's what the curriculum is all about: a grade at the end of the day. On the one hand, I have to help them get a good one; on the other, it'd be easier if a few more of them gave a flying fuck about the subject.

That said, I sympathise. When I was in their position, more years ago now that I'm completely comfortable admitting, I was never particularly interested in history. I got my grades, but I didn't much care about the subject one way or the other.

That probably had a lot to do with my dreary teacher, because in recent years, I've realised I could have been. Should have been, even. History can be absolutely fascinating—as demonstrated by Gideon's Angel—but only when taught properly. And as Clifford Beal argues in the guest post I'm proud to post below, where there's a will, there's a way.


I’ll be truthful. I started my writing profession grounded purely in stone-cold reality. Defence journalism, articles for history magazines, and finally, a book about a little-known Anglo-American pirate named John Quelch who lived in the early 18th century and whose case set legal precedent.

It was that sense of adventure, of the mysteries of what had gone before, that drew me into switching over to write historical fiction and fantasy. I have always read historical fiction. And for me, history was always very much alive, all around us, and always a source of discovery.

As a child, I remember a near endless series of fiction books called Childhoods of Famous Americans, published by the now defunct Bobbs-Merrill company but now back in print. I would devour probably one a week. They were written from the 1930s onwards and when I discovered them in the sixties, they were just as exciting.

These books were instrumental in taking larger-than-life historical figures, somewhat dull as taught in the classroom, and making their experiences relevant to me, as a kid. So too did television often trigger a trip to the library. Watch  Henry Fonda barking orders in the Battle of the Bulge on TV? Check. Then I’d go and read the book. It was axiomatic for me then and probably for a lot of people my age.

I’m not so sure that’s the case any more. It appears today kids are taught “modules” in history where they dive deep into ancient Egypt one term and then WWII the next. They know nothing in between and end up with an unconnected series of historical waypoints that have no relevance or meaning. [All too true!—Ed.] Give me chronological teaching any day.

So here’s an idea: get kids into learning history again by teaching it as a subject that tells “how we got to where we are” and supplement it with narrative, both real and fictitious. If historical fiction can excite young people to take more interest in the actual events of the past—and their impact on the world today—then overall education will benefit and we might actually get a few more historians (and novelists) to enjoy reading in the future.

But what does this all have to do with historical fantasy or alternate history genre fiction? OK, cause and effect gets a bit weaker here I admit, but even speculative fiction can engender serious thought about who we are. And what might have been. Maybe if a kid reads H.G. Wells he’ll develop an interest in the Victorian age—or planetary science. For me, I’m chuffed to bits that I can combine my two great pleasures that are history and fantasy, have fun creating it, and give others the escapist pleasure in reading it.


Many thanks for that, Clifford!

So, folks... thoughts? What say you to a bit of fiction with your fact?

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Book Review | Gideon's Angel by Clifford Beal

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1653: The long and bloody English Civil War is at an end. King Charles is dead and Oliver Cromwell rules the land. Richard Treadwell, Royalist, exile, and now soldier for the King of France, burns for revenge on those who deprived him of his family and fortune. He returns to England in secret to assassinate Cromwell.

But his is not the only plot in motion. A secret army run by a deluded Puritan is bent on the same quest, guided by the Devil's hand. When demonic entities are summoned, Treadwell finds his fortunes reversed; he must save Cromwell, or consign England to Hell...

But first he has to contend with a wife he left in Devon who believes she's a widow, a furious Paris mistress who has trailed him to England, and a young musketeer named d'Artagnan, sent to drag him back to France. It's a dangerous new Republic for an old cavalier coming home.


I've never been particularly interested in alternate history, though I grant that there's a lot to be said of the impetus animating most such stories, which is to say... what if?

For instance: what if I'd enjoyed actual history at high school? I wonder how very different my life might have been, had my teacher only been a better storyteller. Lamentably, he was more interested in hard facts than fanciful narratives, so whilst he droned on about names and dates, asserting the dominance of numbers over wonders, my attention, inevitably, went elsewhere. Instead, I stared into space, imagining other sorts of stories entirely.

But what if things had been different? Would I have the passion for fantasy that has, in some small way, made me who I am today? If there's anything to that scenario—and I think there is—I may have something to thank my history teacher for after all... because otherwise, I probably wouldn't have read Gideon's Angel, and I'm wholeheartedly glad I did.

Simply put, I had more fun with Clifford Beal's book than I've had with any other in some months.

In the aftermath of a long Civil War—a time of political upheaval, indeed outright evil—ye olde England is a deprived and oftentimes depraved place. Nevertheless, Richard Treadwell, a disgraced Cavalier, is less than pleased to be banished to France, where he has little other choice than to accept employment as an agent for a crafty Cardinal called Mazarin.

Eight years later, Treadwell is relatively well established in King Louis' country. He's met Marguerite, the light of his life, and made a few new acquaintances as well. But our man is ever aware of his increasing age, and even now home is hardly where the heart is, so after watching his dear friend Andreas Falkenhayn rot to death in a filthy French bed, Treadwell resolves to return to England, come hell or high water.

His homecoming, however, is not the happiest:
"The weather held fair the whole of my journey, but the sights that met my eyes were bittersweet ones. The lean-to sheds of tapped-out tin mines sat abandoned to fortune: no fires burned, no kilns smoked. And never had I seen so many sturdy beggars in Plympton town. They were a bold lot, following me with wary and covetous eyes. The war had laid the whole place low." (p.62)

In truth, the rogue has returned to England simply to die decently, but complications arise immediately after his arrival. Having said goodbye to the family he had abandoned, Treadwell murders a man by accident, becomes embroiled in deep-seated political and religious intrigue, and uncovers, in short order, a treasonous scheme against Old Ironsides himself, Oliver Cromwell: the very man he had planned to assassinate, or martyr himself trying.

When a rabid black beast summoned from some dark place begins to dog him from town to town, Treadwell's plot goes to pot once and for all. He realises, then, that for England to survive—for human good to prevail over otherworldly evil—he'll have to protect, of all people, the Lord Protector.

This reversal marks a telling turning point in Gideon's Angel: one which demonstrates the two genres the author cleverly brings together over the course of his fantastic, bombastic debut. Beforehand, it has been a fairly straight historical novel, made engaging by moments of character-based drama and increasingly desperate derring-do; afterwards, however, it's dark fantasy through and through, and the aforementioned hellhound is just the first such illustration of the awful horror of Treadwell is destined to come up against.

Fortunately for the fiction, which rattles along so relentlessly that a period of reflection would have interrupted the incredible sense of momentum Beal builds, our narrator has some small experience of the arcane arts. He has "seen things with [his] own eyes in many dark places. Things that would turn your bowels to water in an instant and set your bones to ice." (p.103) Treadwell simply takes these hideous sights in his stride. That's just the sort of anti-hero he is—intractable, yet adaptable. With, as established, a little bit of a death wish.

To wit, though Treadwell is a powerful guiding force for Gideon's Angel to follow, he's harder to invest in as a protagonist—another potential pitfall the author appears aware of, judging by Treadwell's man Billy Chard. He begins a common criminal, but by the end of the affair he's a markedly more relatable character than his master. Billy Chard may be a mere sidekick, but he's funny, frank, and affected by the things he sees—as, I warrant, are we. Here, then, is the reader's route through the non-stop narrative which is Beal's greatest feat.

By smartly sidestepping this issue, and pre-emptively addressing a number of other mistakes in the making—the dialogue is not overbearingly archaic, whilst women are relatively well represented, mostly by Marguerite—Clifford Beal comes out of Gideon's Angel unscathed in a way few new authors do. Clearly, he's an immensely capable creator, and indubitably, this is an assured debut, with a fascinating cast, an authentic setting in terms of place and time too, and a story that practically oozes exuberance.

I dare say I'd have enjoyed Gideon's Angel if it had been a wholly historical novel—a surprising realisation for me—or equally, dark fantasy fiction from the first, but the sheer panache with which Clifford Beal brings together the past and the supernatural results in a headlong alt-history hybrid more potent than either aspect of the entire would be without the other.

Gideon's Angel might seem slight, and in certain respects, I admit it is—on the other hand, it's intensely pleasurable, and so perfectly, purposefully paced that you'll hardly have time to mind, should you be so inclined.


Gideon's Angel
by Clifford Beal

UK Publication: February 2013, Solaris
UK Publication: March 2013, Solaris

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Recommended and Related Reading

Monday, 25 March 2013

Status Update | A River of Reviews

I'm back again, guys! 

For serious this time, because the most pressing of the deadlines I returned to has been defeated. I don't want to jinx the thing by naming it now, but you'll see what I was working so hard on shortly, I'm sure.

So what is there to look forward to on The Speculative Scotsman now that I'm back in the saddle? Well, any number of things. I've read a bunch of great books lately, including Life After Life, the new Patrick Ness and another awesome novel from the author of The Explorer. Reviews of all of those and more are forthcoming, of course.

Plus, I just got an email telling me that my copy of Bioshock Infinite will be with me tomorrow morning. You can bet your last penny that I'll blog about the sequel to my single favourite video game in some way, shape or form... just as soon as I've gotten my grubby paws on it.

There are guest posts and giveaways on the calendar also. Speaking of which, I have the winners of the Among Others competition to announce...

I'm hoping to write up a few comics this week as well. I finally finished Northlanders, then in quick succession read The New Deadwardians, Scott Snyder's Court of the Owls arc in Batman, and last but not least, Grant Morrison's latest miniseries, Happy, made me happy.

If I had all the time in the world you'd hear about all of these. But what do you know? I don't! So I'm going to throw this one open: which comic book would you folks be most interested in hearing more about? If there can be only one, which one?

In other news, have you heard about Speculative Fiction 2012 yet? It's to be an annual anthology collecting, and I quote, "The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary," and it features, of all people, me! Alongside fifty-odd other, better bloggers, obviously. No-one's been mad enough to give me my own book just yet. 

I'll certainly discuss Speculative Fiction 2012 in more detail at a later date, but for the moment, check out the list of contributors on Staffer's Book Review.

What incredible company to be keeping!

But I must be off. Tomorrow, I'm going to run my review of Gideon's Angel, a swashbuckling historical novel by Clifford Beal... then on Wednesday, it gives me immense pleasure to announce that the author will be stopping by to talk about fact, fiction and a third way to tell the world about what once was.

After that? Well, we'll see how the wind blows, won't we?

Friday, 22 March 2013

Short Story Review | Immersion by Aliette de Bodard

However much we pride ourselves on our uniqueness, from time to time, I warrant we’ve all wished we were different—which is to say, we’ve every one of us wanted to be more like someone else, and less like ourselves, if only for an instant.

Fitting in is evidently a tempting premise. To be, for a time, a little prettier, or a little wittier; I wonder what we wouldn’t give for an opportunity to do so. Failing that, we can always fake it till we make it.

But it’s not so easy to change who we are—even briefly—nor indeed should we, because what does being one of a number win us, ultimately? Consider, in contrast, all that we would lose, were we to flick some transformative switch.

In her BSFA award-nominated short story, Aliette de Bodard, author of the Obsidian and Blood books, gives voice to that very idea via the immerser, a device which essentially corrects “abnormal” thought processes—but at what cost? And who’s to say what normal is, anyway?

Winningly, 'Immersion' begins with this telling address in the second person:

In the morning, you're no longer quite sure who you are.
You stand in front of the mirror—it shifts and trembles, reflecting only what you want to see—eyes that feel too wide, skin that feels too pale, an odd, distant smell wafting from the compartment's ambient system that is neither incense nor garlic, but something else, something elusive that you once knew.
You're dressed, already—not on your skin, but outside, where it matters, your avatar sporting blue and black and gold, the stylish clothes of a well-travelled, well-connected woman. For a moment, as you turn away from the mirror, the glass shimmers out of focus; and another woman in a dull silk gown stares back at you: smaller, squatter and in every way diminished—a stranger, a distant memory that has ceased to have any meaning.
The author’s unusual choice of perspective renders ‘Immersion’ immediately engaging, and it proves doubly powerful throughout, not least because it works to obscure the identity of our central character; a clever technical reflection of the identity crisis Aliette de Bodard suggests in the story’s opening moments.

The setting of 'Immersion' is equally considered, I think. The entirety of the tale takes place on Longevity Station, an independent yet isolated spaceport where a commingling of distinct cultures clash. I admit to picturing Deep Space 9 in my mind’s eye; an appropriate point of reference given this story’s focus on trade and tourism. In any event, Longevity allows the author to realise the potential of her premise, particularly when our unknowable narrator crosses paths with Quy.

Quy, whose third person POV punctuates the aforementioned sections, is a wistful young woman who works under Second Uncle in her grandmother’s Rong restaurant. When she’s called in on her day of rest to facilitate an important meeting, Quy comes face to face—or perhaps only avatar to avatar—with a client in real danger of disappearing, so long has she had her immerser on.

That latter’s rationale for relying so heavily on said, whispered so innocently in her ear, illuminates one of this story’s darkest aspects:

People like you [...] have to work the hardest to adjust, because so much about you draws attention to itself—the stretched eyes that crinkle in the shape of moths, the darker skin, the smaller, squatter shape more reminiscent of jackfruits than swaying fronds. But no matter: you can be made perfect; you can put on the immerser and become someone else, someone pale-skinned and tall and beautiful.
In this way, Aliette de Bodard draws attention to the difficult, not to mention discomfiting question 'Immersion' asks: if, after all, we can so utterly alter ourselves at the touch of a button, where do we draw the line, and why? Surely it cannot be right to reorient our race, but what about class and gender and other such issues? When we can be anyone we want, who are we really?

Striking yet subtle, thoughtful but not ponderous, and ultimately uplifting, 'Immersion' is without question one of the strongest contenders on the BSFA’s shortlist. I wouldn’t be in the slightest surprised to see Aliette de Bodard take home the Best Short Story trophy for this entrancing effort.


“Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard was published in Clarkesword Magazine #69 in June 2012. You can read it for free here.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Short Story Review | The Flight of the Ravens by Chris Butler

In the year 1889, childhood friends Bernard and Elizabeth are essentially inseparable... until a deadly game divides them forever after. The BFFs cannot resist but investigate an abandoned building, nor, alas, can its occupant—some sort of a soul-sucking vampire, complete with red wine and a raven—resist the visiting children. He vanishes Bernard, to devour at a later date, and casts Elizabeth out, alone yet alive, that she may remember this terrible day.

Ten years passed, years in which Elizabeth lived with the certain knowledge that there were monsters in the world and they would consume you if you did not adequately protect yourself. To that end, she learned all she could of the magical nature of the world.
Fast forward to the turn of the century, during which period the bulk of this gloomy tale takes place. Even now, Elizabeth unable to talk about the events of that fateful night, but Bernard’s father has taken an interest in her development in any event. In fact, she and Huginn have becomes fast friends themselves.

The loss has so overwhelmed Huginn’s wife, however, that a certain turn-of-the-century psychologist—let’s play Spot the Sigmund!—has had to take her into his care.

Then, when a parent comes to the school where Elizabeth currently works to enrol his son as a new student, Elizabeth finds herself falling for yet another father figure. But there is more to Lukas Nostrand than meets the eye, and only Huginn seems to see it.

Though Chris Butler has been nominated for four BSFA awards before, 'The Flight of the Ravens' is the first of his stories to hit the shortlist proper, and I dare say it takes a certain amount of creativity to think of it as science fiction in any sense.

Indeed, whilst reading through it for the column this review previously featured in, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop... for some aspect of the narrative to be unmasked as science fictional in some way. But no. No such turns occur. The closest we get to the tropes typical of that category is a black hole in someone’s belly—but this is an incidental glimpse at best. At bottom, 'The Flight of the Ravens' is a fairly straightforward story about gods and monsters.

Huginn and Muninn were the ravens of Odin, king of the Norse gods. The ravens were brothers. Huginn was the thoughtful one, interested in the why of thing, while Muninn sought to unlock all the mysteries of the world, to know the what and the how. [...] In times of war, the ravens were intelligence-gatherers. In the times between wars, they brought Odin knowledge and understanding of the worlds, so that he, already the wisest of gods, could become wiser still.
Call it historical horror, or dark fantasy perhaps, but whatever you do, don’t think of 'The Flight of the Ravens' as science fiction. It simply isn’t. Which leaves me wondering why in the world the British Science Fiction Association opted to shortlist it for an award.

That said, this is the same organisation who crowned Coraline as the year’s Best Short Story in 2002. Read into that what you will.

So 'The Flight of the Ravens' is a far cry from sci-fi. Nor, by most measures, could you call it short fiction. At almost 100 pages long, with 25 short chapters, several narrative perspectives, three time periods and scenes taking place from Frankfurt to Amsterdam—not to mention Vienna—Chris Butler’s novella has markedly more opportunity to (ahem) spread its wings than any of this year’s nominees for the BSFA’s Best Short Story trophy... yet it lacks the impact of even the least of these.

The premise is nothing new; the scattershot narrative is, shall we say, strangely paced; and through it all, the denouement is a forgone conclusion, albeit one with an interesting twist.

Thus, our penultimate contender seems utterly out of place on this specific shortlist, but leaving aside questions of form and content, 'The Flight of the Ravens' is a fine, if not sublime story, with absorbing characters, an authentic setting and undeniably admirable ambitions. Though I struggle to understand what the British Science Fiction Association see in said, overall I enjoyed the experience of reading it regardless.


'The Flight of the Ravens' by Chris Butler was published by Immersion Press in September 2012. You can buy a copy of the novella here.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Short Story Review | Three Moments of an Explosion by China Mieville

The presence of 'Three Moments of an Explosion' on the BSFA's shortlist for the Best Short Story of 2012 may strike some as strange, but consider that this brief piece comes from China Mieville, author of the Association’s choice of Best Novel in 2010, The City & The City, and a shoe-in for subsequent awards if ever there was one.

And it is, despite its succinctness, a searing short, packing more panache in 500 words than most stories ten times its length can conjure. Also more ampersands, per the perplexing example the serial nominee set in Railsea recently.

'Three Moments of an Explosion' starts with... well, what else but a bang? But this is an explosion of ideas inasmuch as actual matter:

The demolition is sponsored by Burger King. Everyone is used, now, to rotvertising, the spelling of company names & reproduction of hip product logos in the mottle & decay of subtly gene-tweaked decomposition—Apple paying for the breakdown of apples, the bitten-fruit sigil becoming visible on mouldy cores. Explosion marketing is new. Stuff the right nanos into squibs & missiles so the blasts of war machines inscribe BAE & Raytheon’s names in fire on the sky above the cities those companies ignite.
All too plausible, isn’t it?

Here, however, China Mieville makes do with a rather more modest illustration of the press push outlined above: instead of some oil-rich nation state, the titular explosion is of “an old warehouse, too unsafe to let stand,” brought to you by BK.

Have it Your Way, eh?

That said, this too comes at a cost—indeed, you might measure the collateral damage in lives—because in the story’s dense second paragraph China Mieville moves from the moment before the explosion to the moment of it, pulling back from one big idea to reveal another. Herein we hear of three demolition-trippers who have taken “tachyon-buggered MDMA” to be excepted, temporarily, from time. Thus, in these stolen seconds the trio mount a frenzied survey of the structure... as it crumbles.

This is extreme squatting. The boisterous, love-filled crew jog through their overlapping stillness together & bundle towards the building. Three make it inside before they slip back into chronology. Theirs are big doses & they have hours—subjectively—to explore the innards of the edifice as it hangs, slumping, its floors now pitched & interrupted mid-eradication, its corridors clogged with the dust of the hesitating explosion.
Come the third and final paragraph of 'Three Moments of an Explosion,' time has passed—this, then, is the moment after—but if you’ll pardon my Metallica, the memory remains. I’ll let you find out how on your own.

As I’ve touched on I don't know how many times here on The Speculative Scotsman, China Mieville is one of my very favourite writers. His Bas-Lag books in particular proved pivotal during my younger years, and ever since The Scar I’ve had a special place in my heart for his weird and wonderful worlds. Also his way with words; his wicked wit; and his specific stylistic signature—ampersands & all, of late.

In terms of character I confess he tends to be less successful, but 'Three Moments of an Explosion' showcases none by name, smartly sidestepping that potential pitfall. Furthermore, the verbosity which characterises China Mieville at his least appealing is also absent, for there are no wasted phrases in this shockingly short story. Every sentence, one senses, serves a purpose.

'Three Moments of an Explosion' may appear to be minor Mieville, but its brevity behoves us to look more closely. Read it once, read it twice, read it thrice. You’ll unpick the puzzle soon enough, and the solution is sublime.


'Three Moments of an Explosion' by China Mieville was published in Rejectmentalist Manifesto in September 2012. You can read it for free here.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Giving the Game Away | We Are Among Others

Hello again, everyone. I'm back!

Only briefly, I'm afraid. Predictably, I've returned home to deadlines aplenty, and as ever, the day job awaits, so I only have a few moments to devote to The Speculative Scotsman this afternoon. Luckily, that' should just long enough for me to blog about one of the very best books I've read in recent years: a multiple award-winner that (for once) deserves all the acclaim that's been heaped upon it. Namely Among Others by Jo Walton.

It's an extraordinary novel, with the most memorable narrator I've encountered in ages: Morwenna Phelps (or Mori to her friends... not that she has terribly many) is always charming and often disarming, but here's what really struck me about this marvellous character: she is undeniably one of us—which is to say an individual as inextricable from the fantastical literature she reads and reflects on throughout Among Others as any die-hard genre fiction fan—and wonderfully, one senses Jo Walton is as well.

If you've gone this long without reading Among Others already, you must know by now that you're missing something magnificent. But perhaps you aren't aware of what this novel is, and equally, what it isn't. Well:
"Think of this as a memoir. Think of it as one of those memoirs that's later discredited to everyone's horror because the writer lied and is revealed to be a different colour, gender, class and creed from the way they'd made everybody think. I have the opposite problem. I have to keep fighting to stop making myself sound more normal. Fiction's nice. Fiction lets you select and simplify. This isn't a nice story, and this isn't an easy story. But it is a story about fairies, so feel free to think of it as a fairy story. It's not like you'd believe it anyway."
The thing of it is... I did. Among Others came alive for me in a way truly few books do when I finally read it this past winter. Sadly, the review I wrote way back when—the review I had been sitting on ever since, waiting for this very day, I dare say—appears to have been eaten by Blogger, so you'll just have to take my word for it: Among Others is bittersweet, beautifully put... quite simply brilliant.

But wait! What am I talking about? You don't have to take my word for it at all, because even if you exclude the innumerable glowing reviews of the book my bloggery colleagues have written already—and why would you?—this post begins a whole week of awesome Among Others coverage.

Tomorrow, Civilian Reader will be chipping in; Dark Wolf's Fantasy Reviews welcomes Jo Walton on Wednesday; on Thursday, tune in to 2606 Books; then The Book Smugglers are due to do their inimitable thing on Friday. Over the weekend, Jan Edwards and Fantasy Faction will have the book's back, and a week from today, the blog tour concludes courtesy of Curiosity Killed the Bookworm.

Needless to say, it'll be a brilliant week, and all in honour of a good cause. Among Others really does merit such celebration. And to start us off properly, it's with immense pleasure—and many thanks to the fine folks at Constable & Robinson who are publishing the paperback this Thursday—that I say I have three copies of the beautiful new British edition of this book to give away to interested parties based in the UK.

All you need do to stand a chance of winning Among Others is to email me at thespeculativescotsman [at] gmail [dot] com with your name and address. Mark your subject headers 'We Are Among Others' and I'll announce the lucky ones next week, when I'm properly on top of the blog again.

It really is as easy as that.

Seriously, what are you waiting for? :)

We'll talk again shortly, all. In the interim, do stay tuned for a few more Short Story Reviews, including one of the piece I think should win the BSFA's award for the Best Short Story of 2012.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Short Story Review | Adrift of the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales

Imagine, for a moment, that the Earth had died, but somehow, you were still alive. That’s the possessing—if, yes, depressing—elevator pitch for the first short story we’ll be discussing today.

Saying that, Ian Sales’ story is not, strictly speaking, short at all. I’m not sure about its exact word count—it’s either a novelette or a full-fledged novella—but whatever its length, and aside the pros and cons of including it in this particular category, what 'Adrift on the Sea of Rains' is... is extraordinary.

Brace yourself, however, because this tour de force begins bleakly. Which is not to say it ends happily either!

Some days, when it feels like the end of the world yet again, Colonel Vance Peterson, USAF, goes out onto the surface and gazes up at what they have lost.
In the grey gunpowder dust, he stands in the pose so familiar from televised missions. He leans forward to counterbalance the weight of the PLSS on his back; the A7LB’s inflated bladder pushes his arms out from his sides. And he stares up at that grey-white marble fixed mockingly above the horizon. He listens to the whirr of the pumps, his own breath an amniotic susurrus within the confines of his helmet. This noises reassure him—sound itself he finds comforting in this magnificent desolation.
If he turns about—blurring bootprints which might otherwise last for millennia—he sees the blanket-like folds of mountains, all painted with scalpel-edged shadows. Over there, to his right, the scattered descent stages of LM Trucks and Augmented LMs fill the mare; and one, just one, still with its ascent stage. Another, he knows, is nearly twenty years old, a piece of abandoned history; but he does not know which one.
No prizes for guessing where Peterson and the eight other survivors Ian Sales soon introduces us to were when the world ended.

But as a wise man mooted many years ago, the moon is a harsh mistress, and it’s all the crew of Falcon Base can do to wake up each day without a home to go to.

It’s been twenty-four months since Earth stopped responding to messages from Peterson and his fellow Americans. Twenty-four months since the world’s beautiful blue gave way to a dismal, gritty grey. Since the conflict between the United States and the Soviets culminated in a planet not going but gone, leaving only this sliver of life behind.
They all have their own ways of dealing with the situation. Deep inside each of them, hope has been eroded away to a tiny nub, as useless as an appendix. Peterson loses himself in the lunar landscape. McKay locks himself in his room and listens to mournful country music, as if their misery renders his own smaller and more manageable. Scott has put away his personality, consigned it to some corner of his mind where it cannot be battered and bruised by their slow descent into despair. Curtis reads, working his way obsessively through every manual and technical document in the base. Kendall has his torsion field generator, the Bell, whose arcane workings he claims to understand more with each passing week.
It is this last device that our wretched moon-men have hung the weather-beaten wreck of their expectations on. With the Bell, they may very well be able to turn back time. But all the potential points of divergence they program into the thing seem to lead to the same inevitable end, and even if they are able to find a replacement present—which, with precious resources diminishing by the day, seems increasingly unlikely—what then?

Excepting said tech and an alt-history element, Ian Sales seems comprehensively committed to accuracy in all things relating to the several subjects addressed in 'Adrift on the Sea of Rains,' as evidenced by its independently lengthy appendixes. But though the level and texture of Sales’ procedural detail is remarkable, it does not detract from the narrative’s forward progress, nor the arc of our central character, who snaps out of his trance just in time to crash a spectacular last act.

The supporting cast, on the other hand, hardly figure in to the fiction. But given that “despair has made strangers of them”—“Their paths cross only at meal-times—and even then, the nine of them might as well be in separate rooms”—this is wholly appropriate; in fact, this pervasive sense of solitude, even (or especially) when Robertson is in the company of others, adds to the effectiveness of an already sorrowful story.

So too does the author’s use of the present tense imbue each moment with the dreadful emptiness Peterson himself feels—and this is but one of the compositional tricks Ian Sales has up his sleeve. Indeed, 'Adrift of the Sea of Rains' is but one of the four proposed volumes of The Apollo Quartet, the second of which is already upon us. Let me stress, though, that both parts of the whole stand alone; their only real relation beyond the obvious is that they’re both brilliant.

I dare say you too will despair as you read through 'Adrift on the Sea of Rains,' and though this might not sound particularly pleasant, believe you me: this nominee is required reading for anyone with the remotest interest in science fiction.

As it its successor. But we’ll leave 'The Eye with Which the Universe Beholds Itself' for another time, perhaps...


'Adrift on the Sea of Rains' was published by Whippleshield Books in April 2012. You can buy a copy of the novella here.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Short Story Review | The Song of the Body Cartographer by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

The trouble with ‘The Song of the Body Cartographer,’ is my opinion, is that it’s just too short to get its point across.

At the outset, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz introduces us to Siren and Inyanna, class-cross’d lovers in a world of windbeasts, where emotional programmers are able to remap the human animal:
The Matriarchy had sent Inyanna to Siren with an express command. For all that Siren was one of the common, she had been and still was the best body cartographer in all of Ayudan. She could have become Qa’ta if she wished, but she’d always cherished the freedom that came with being common and no matter that being Qa’ta came with privileges, she couldn’t bear to leave her carefree life behind.

Inyanna was Timor’an–more than that she was gifted with insight and with the Matriarch’s blood. She would ascend to the Matriarch’s place if she could prove herself in flight. And there lay the heart of the problem–Inyanna was meant to fly and yet she could not.
What follows, in a succession of short scenes, is equal parts a chronicle of Siren’s attempts to enable Inyanna to fly as the rest of her kind can, and an account of the rise and fall, or the fall and rise, of a strange but beautiful relationship.

On the sentence level, at least, ‘The Song of the Body Cartographer’ is sublime. The author’s soaring prose is practically poetry in motion—that she is a Clarion West graduate comes as no surprise—and whatever its other issues, this is an undeniably evocative short.

But from the climax at the start to the bittersweet resolution come the conclusion, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz seems keen to the reader on the back foot, and unsurprisingly, this proves problematic. ‘The Song of the Body Cartographer’ boasts enough world-building to warrant a novel, characters that seem to have stepped out of something far larger, and though it does end, in a sense, on the whole, it reads more like an isolated excerpt than a whole story.

For instance, there’s an overwhelming volume of terminology, complete with the deliberately placed apostrophes we see so much of in high fantasy: see qa’ta and qi’ma, pillor’ak and Timor’an. Meanwhile one’s sense of setting is fragmented at best, and the narrative—which I should stress does come together eventually—is so overstuffed with invention and imagination that its focus feels fleeting:
Siren adjusted the gaze on the machine. The cocoon was one she’d had made after a visit to the Veils. She had watched the stoic Nahipan as they went about their business and had observed a cocoon which was put to use at certain intervals of the day. 
Drawing closer, she had been surprised to see that the cocoon uncovered extraneous layers, laying bare the cords of muscle and the line of nerves underneath. 
Fascinated by the cocoon, she’d obtained permission from the Nahipan’s chief technician and with his help she had managed to recreate a facsimile in Lower Ayudan.
Ultimately, I was not surprised to read, per the story’s postscript, that ‘The Song of the Body Cartographer’ is inspired by the surrealist artwork embedded above—namely ‘Creation of the Birds’ by Remedios Vario—nor latterly that it was in fact extracted from Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s current work in progress.

In the past, I’ve enjoyed several of this author’s other shorts—let me especially recommend ‘Of the Liwat’ang Yawa, the Litok-litok and their Prey,’ which you can read for free here—and indeed I appreciated the potential of ‘The Song of the Body Cartographer.’ I’m just not quite convinced Rochita Loenen-Ruiz realises it here, but perhaps she will in the forthcoming novel this nominee is but a small part of.


'The Song of the Body Cartographer' was published in Philippine Genre Stories in June 2012. You can read it for free here.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Short Story Review | Limited Edition by Tim Maughan

In early August 2011, the world almost ended. Or so it seemed from where I was sitting: at home, glued to the news, watching in horror as thousands of people took to rioting in the streets for no reason I could easily see.

Using social media and mobile devices to organise themselves, these individuals made of London a living hell, and various other British cities went down the toilet as well. The gangs took what they wanted from high street retailers—from TVs to trainers—and burned what they didn’t.

Estimates place the cumulative cost of the resulting property damage at approximately two hundred million pounds. But forget the finances: five people died, many others were injured—and that isn’t counting the countless participants who were uncannily quiet about their so-called war wounds.

The forces of law and order did eventually respond. All the police who had planned leaves of absence were told to hold their horses, whilst parliament was (rather pointlessly) recalled. Our poor pillock of a Prime Minister even had to cut short his holidays!

Ultimately, more than three thousand people were arrested in relation to the riots, and gradually, they did die down. But the image of them—the idea of them—still persists. As ‘Limited Edition’ illustrates.

Tim Maughan’s startling short story begins with an extraordinary advert:
Eugene Sureshot, one mile tall, strides through the wasteland. Where his limited edition trainers hit the ground deserts bloom, city blocks rise and mountains rip themselves from the ground. Vistas erupt from each footfall, spreading like bacteria, mingling, creating landscapes. New places from the dead ground. Civilisations rise, intricate detail evolves around the soles of giant feet. 
Then Sureshot stops, as if something blocks his path. [He] steps back, raises a foot from the ground—leaving behind light-trails of glass skyscrapers and steel domes, and puts one limited edition kick through the screen, so all that Grids can see is the rubber sole, embossed tick logo.
It’s only a commercial for new shoes, but Grids can’t get it out of his head. By hook or by crook, he resolves, he’ll call a pair of these limited edition kicks his own. Alas, “he’s got no cash. Never has. And down here that makes him irrelevant, an outsider. It makes him insignificant.” So when Grids gets wind of a local store with inventory already, weeks before street date, he and his mans meet in an empty epic fantasy MMO to hatch a plan.

“Standard Smash/Grab rules yeah? No casualties, especially no staff or civilians,” he stresses. Thus the game begins: servers are brought online, admins are installed, and other essential information is seeded, secretly, via >>blinks<< on Twitter.

The progress of Grids and his gang will be followed by a flash mob of interested observers; though an ARG overlaid on their spex, they’ll unlock achievements and score multipliers for achieving certain objectives. Their success will essentially earn them significance. Their failure? Infamy. It’s a win-win situation... but of course it gets out of hand quickly.

‘Limited Edition’ is a chilling take on the reign of organised anarchy in the UK discussed above, and as such, its contemporary relevance is second to none—certainly to none of the BSFA’s other nominees for the Best Short Story of 2012. It touches, too, on the potential consequences of targeted marketing; on the place of gaming in our era; and on the immeasurable impact social media has had on society. As an extrapolation of recent events and advances, ‘Limited Edition’ is as astonishing as it is alarming.

But beyond its bearing on tomorrow’s world—nay today’s—Tim Maughan’s cautionary tale of the dispossessed in Britain’s cities also functions on a number of other fronts. In particularly fantastic in terms of character; somehow, despite what they’re doing, Grids and his fam seem sympathetic. On one level I honestly wanted them to get away with their Smash/Grab!

Then I remembered myself...

There is, then, a sense of tension between what is right outside the story, and what is true within its narrow, claustrophobic confines. In addition to this, ‘Limited Edition’ is propelled by an exponentially more desperate momentum, and bolstered by some very fitting imagery, which has nature resembling artifice rather than the other way around:
When Grids and his crew get to Avonmeads, he sees they’re being eyeballed by a fat black crow, perched on top of a CCTV pole. Like the camera it watches them pass. [...] He feels knots in his stomach, that feeling of being out of his comfort zone, of being watched and pointed out as an outsider.
‘Limited Edition’ may be a cutting commentary on any number of contemporary topics, but it’s also a damn fine short story—one of the most potent I've read in recent years—with candid characters, powerful pacing, and a terrific yet terrifying perspective.

To wit, Tim Maughan’s latest tale is well and truly deserving of its spot on the BSFA’s shortlist—as was ‘Havana Augmented’ (now available as one third of Paintwork) when it was nominated two years ago—though I wonder whether or not the same can be said of our next contender.


'Limited Edition' by Tim Maughan was published in Arc 1.3: Afterparty Overdrive in September 2012. You can buy a copy of the magazine here.

Monday, 11 March 2013

We Interrupt This Broadcast | For a Short Sojourn in Skye

I appear to be going on holiday again!

Like last time, I'm just taking just a little trip up to the isle of Skye, which is within a day's drive from where I stay, but still far enough away that it feels like another world. The fact that the internet is almost impossible to access on the island plays into that in a fairly major way.

Now I won't be gone for long, but I expect to be incredibly busy when I get back, so expect normal service to resume ten days or thereabouts from today. To entertain you all in my absence, I'm going to schedule several of the capsule reviews I've written for the Short Fiction Spotlight to date. I do hope you enjoy them.

In addition, I'll be keeping all my usual commitments. Look out for a new Spotlight to go live on on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, the British Genre Fiction Focus will be published as per usual. My editors over there are also sitting on two reviews—of two truly beautiful books, namely The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson—that they might well unleash within the next week. 

Relatedly, here are a few of the books I'll be packing tomorrow morning:

One of these things is not like the other! Indeed, one of these things I'm bringing because you all told me to... though Stefan's recent post on Civilian Reader has rather dampened my enthusiasm regarding Assassin's Apprentice.

In any case, these days (it gives me great pleasure to say) short stories a regular part of my reading diet, so I'll be taking a few anthologies too:

Fine fodder, one might imagine, for subsequent Spotlights...

Wish me happy holidays, all! :)

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Cover Identity | Doctor Sleep Looks Sweet

But seriously, it does.

Doesn't it?

I was already excited to read Doctor Sleep, but now? Now I've ordered a copy of the US edition too, because that... that's cover art!

Though I do wonder whose face I'm supposed to be seeing. Certainly not Danny Torrance's. And I doubt we're looking at Abra Stone either, given that the synopsis says she's only 12 years old.

Actually, hang on. I don't believe I've blogged about the plot before, so here's the blurb doing the rounds right now:
"On highways across America, a tribe of people called The True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They look harmless—mostly old, lots of polyester, and married to their RVs. But as Dan Torrance knows, and spunky twelve-year-old Abra Stone learns, The True Knot are quasi-immortal, living off the “steam” that children with the “shining” produce when they are slowly tortured to death. 
"Haunted by the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel where he spent one horrific childhood year, Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father’s legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, an AA community that sustains him, and a job at a nursing home where his remnant “shining” power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes “Doctor Sleep.” 
"Then Dan meets the evanescent Abra Stone, and it is her spectacular gift, the brightest shining ever seen, that reignites Dan’s own demons and summons him to a battle for Abra’s soul and survival. This is an epic war between good and evil... a gory, glorious story that will thrill the millions of devoted readers of The Shining and satisfy anyone new to the territory of this icon in the King canon."
I'm still not sure what to make of this sequel—gorgeous as the cover art is, I'm more interested in the text itself—but you can be sure I'll be there from day one, or as near as dammit I can, to tell you whether or not Stephen King's next novel (after Joyland in June) is worth losing sleep over.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Admitting Defeat | Me and All Clear

I'm sure some of you were wondering what prompted me to post a belated review [link] of Blackout yesterday. Well, there's the short answer, and the long answer.

The short answer is, I've been sitting on it for something like two years to date, and I didn't want the week to begin without blogging about something on The Speculative Scotsman. I dare say it would have otherwise: I'm covering another tutor's classes at the education centre I work at this week, plus I have a few deadlines to attend to in the meagre remains of my free time.

Oh, and it's my birthday today... but hey, who wants to celebrate being older?

But why Blackout? Why in the world has it taken me so long to publish this particular piece?

Well, because I always planned to review All Clear right alongside the first part of Connie Willis' wartime tome. It only seemed decent, considering they form a single story.

To do that, though, I'd have to read All Clear, and though I did indeed begin it immediately after finishing Blackout, I put it down soon afterwards. To the best of my recollection, I did this to remind myself that books could be good—

—but no, that's not fair. Blackout wasn't that bad. What I mean to say is that I started in on something else to remind myself that books could be enjoyable, as well as academic.

Anyway, All Clear has sat heavily in the bedside cabinet wherein I keep all the books I should really read ever since, and I realised, quite recently—whilst reading Life After Life by Kate Atkinson for review at a later date on—that there's no reason a serious novel about the war couldn't be objectively entertaining, which Blackout (to my mind) simply wasn't.

So what happened was, I admitted defeat. I said to myself: Niall, you clearly don't want to read this book right now, and you certainly won't for a while after the lovely likes of Life After Life, so why not just file it away for the time being?

Well, dear reader... I did. And I immediately felt like a great weight had been sitting on me for years. A weight of words that I'm now without.

Happy birthday to me! :)

Monday, 4 March 2013

Book Review | Blackout by Connie Willis

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In Oxford, in England, in the year 2060, a trio of time traveling scholars prepare to depart for various corners of the Second World War.

Their mission: to observe, from a safe distance, the day-to-day nature of life during this critical historical moment. As the action ranges from the evacuation of Dunkirk to the manor houses of rural England to the quotidian horrors of London during the Blitz, the objective nature of their roles gradually changes.

Then, cut off from the safety net of the future and caught up in the chaotic events that make up history, they are forced to participate, in unexpected ways, in the defining events of the era. 


Blackout is a huge book.

Or rather - scratch that - it's one half, indeed the shorter half, of a book more than twice the size of this vast first part. You see, All Clear picks up immediately where Blackout leaves off, essentially mid-sentence. Stopping at that stage would be akin to giving up on a quest when you've only just discovered your objective.

Admittedly I have a bit of a problem insofar as I finish almost everything I start. Simply put, I have a hard time giving up on any story, whatever its demerits. Oftentimes I wish I could just say thank you and good night... that enough is enough.

And halfway through Blackout, let me tell you: I had had enough.

It does, in its defence, get a good deal better thereafter. If it hadn't, I don't think I'd have started All Clear immediately after it stopped short, even given my aforementioned foibles. But three or four hundred pages of faffing later - and that's the politest way I can put it - things do begin to come together. Some of our characters even meet! 

Wait, are we getting ahead of ourselves already? 

Well, that's what time travel's all about, isn't it? And Blackout is all about the time travel, ostensibly. About a future, half a century on from where we are, in which the historians of Oxford University have quite cracked the past. If there's something they're not sure about, or some significant event they simply want to see for themselves, all these people need do is nip in and out of a neat machine.

Actually, I'm overselling it a bit. Is life ever so straightforward? It's certainly not for prospective time travellers, who have to cut through a whole ream of red tape before they can take to days gone by, and even then, things have gotten kinda crazy. As one historian observes:
"Linna says they're simply swamped over there. Ten drops and retrievals a day. If you ask me, there are entirely too many historians going to the past. We'll be crashing into each other soon." (p.25)
Little does Chris know that's exactly what's about to happen. In... oh, four hundred pages or so—and this is a generous estimation.

In advance of that, alas: a whole lot of nothing. In the future, where a murder of history majors are readying themselves to travel to London in the early stages of the Second World War—to the time of the Blitz, specifically—everyone's up in arms about their dates of departure to the past being shuffled around, seemingly willy-nilly, and no-one can get in to plead their particular case with the man in charge.

Not before time, Michael, Merope and Polly gather that there's nothing to be done, so they set off for the past, exceedingly ill-prepared for the hardships ahead, and woefully unaware—until, again, a very late stage—that something, somewhere, has gone very wrong. Months into their respective assignments they discover, to their horror, that the drops which deposited them in the past, and which they must also use to return to their present, more than a century hence, have summarily stopped working. And that's when Blackout finally kicks off.

Till then, the whole time travel aspect of Connie Willis' latest trip down memory lane seems, well... peripheral at best. There are a few rudimentary rules, foremost amongst them the laws of divergence:
"History is full of divergence points nobody could get anywhere near - from Archduke Ferdinand's assassination to the battle of Trafalgar. Events so critical and so volatile that the introduction of a single variable - such as a time traveller - could change the outcome. And alter the entire course of history." (p.47)
Beyond this, though, and the hateful bureaucratic nonsense with which Blackout begins, the business of travelling to the past is pretty much plain sailing - and deathly dull - until our characters realise that they've been misplaced. From bad to worse, it dawns on Polly that "this was time travel. No matter how long it took Oxford to locate another drop or check every department store and Underground station, they could still have returned to Oxford, sent a second team through and had them waiting for her outside Townsend Brothers that first morning." (p.437)

In other words, they're trapped. Something must have gone horribly wrong in the future because of their presence in the past. Or is it so simple? Are they merely over-thinking things?

As of the impromptu conclusion of Blackout, Michael, Merope and Polly each have their secrets and suspicions, but none of the three can be certain about what's truly going on.

Nor, indeed, are we. Assuredly I was unsure what to make of all this... this interminable scene-setting. Because that almost the entirety of what Blackout amounts to, ultimately: an excruciatingly detail-oriented introduction to some presumably bigger and you'd-best-hope better thing.

For starters, there's little to no character development at all. Our trio spend so long pretending to be period-appropriate people that we don't get a sense of who they actually are, so when they at least they catch up with one another, and drop the act, they seem like different characters entirely. Characters we know next to nothing about, here at the end of ten to twelve hours in their company; even less engaging characters than those we've spent so long getting to know, I would add.

And whilst Willis' evocation of wartime London is especially authentic—rife with odds and sods of information as interesting as they are incidental—there's simply no momentum to the narrative, and not until the very end (which is to say at approximately the midpoint of the duology, were we to consider it as a single thing, as I gather the author intended) is there much more than the vaguest suggestion of jeopardy. 

Splitting this story into two parts has done it no favours, I'm afraid. Now that all the players are arrayed about the stage, and the props are in proper order, I have reason to believe that All Clear will be a more satisfying experience than this never-ending fragment of a thing, but on its own, I'm sorry: never mind all the awards that the author has won for it—or so an assortment of committees insist—Blackout is a huge disappointment. Not an absolute nothing of a novel, no... but surely far too close for comfort.


by Connie Willis

UK Publication: June 2011, Gollancz
US Publication: February 2010, Spectra

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