Friday, 31 January 2014

Book Review | Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Darrow is a Red: a member of the lowest caste in the colour-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations. Yet he spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better world for his children.

But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and sprawling parks spread across the planet. Darrow — and Reds like him — are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class.

Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity’s overlords struggle for power. He will be forced to compete for his life and the very future of civilization against the best and most brutal of Society’s ruling class. There, he will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies... even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.


Incredibly, man has been fascinated with Mars for millennia. For more than four thousand years, we've wondered what might be out there, up there. Now we know: some rocks, some regolith, and the occasional frozen lake.

The drab reality of the red planet might pale in comparison to all the otherworldly wonders we've imagined in our science and science fiction, but that hasn't stopped us from dispatching exploratory probes and planning manned missions. More than that: we've considered colonising its canyons—overcoming the challenges of its harsh environment and making Mars a home away from home—though those days are a fair ways away, I'm afraid.

Part the first of an ambitious trilogy by Pierce Brown, Red Rising takes place in a future where these distant dreams have been realised... not that the Golds who live the high life here have elected to tell the Reds whose blood, sweat and tears made man's occupation of Mars viable. Rather, the Reds are perpetually mislead: they labour away in craters and caves under the impression that they will be rewarded for their hard work one day, when others come.

But others are already here. They have been for hundreds of years; hundreds of years during which generations of Reds have dug and danced and died none the wiser, including our protagonist Darrow's dad.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Book Review | The Girl With All the Gifts by M. J. Carey

Melanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her "our little genius."

Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don't like her. She jokes that she won't bite, but they don't laugh.

Melanie loves school. She loves learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom and the children's cells. She tells her favourite teacher all the things she'll do when she grows up. Melanie doesn't know why this makes Miss Justineau look sad.


There's been a bunch of buzz about this book in the six months since its announcement. Aside a hearty helping of hyperbole, however, we've had next to nothing to go on: only an unsettling excerpt about a girl who loves "learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom" evidently being kept in captivity; and the fact that M. J. Carey is an ever-so-slight pseudonym for the author of the five Felix Castor novels and any number of awesome comics, not least Lucifer and more recently The Unwritten.

So what is The Girl With All the Gifts?

Well... I'm not going to tell you yet. But I was curious, to be sure. With Orbit asserting that The Girl With All the Gifts will be its "biggest cross-over launch ever," I expected loads more from the marketing department; a blogosphere blitz featuring lengthy excerpts and the like. Instead, the crux of the campaign to date has been an assurance that this book would be worth the wait. And it is. From the magnificent moment when what was actually going on dawned on me right through to the bleak but beautiful conclusion Carey has crafted, The Girl With all the Gifts is terrific. 

If you were wondering whether or not to bother with it, know now that there's no question. Buy a copy and avoid the internet at all costs. Don't even read the rest of this review!

Friday, 24 January 2014

Book Review | Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea by Adam Roberts

It is 1958 and France's first nuclear submarine, Plongeur, leaves port for the first of its sea trials. On board, gathered together for the first time, one of the navy's most experienced captains and a tiny skeleton crew of sailors, engineers and scientists.

The Plongeur makes her first dive and goes down, and down and down... Out of control, the submarine plummets to a depth where the pressure will crush her hull, killing everyone on board, and beyond.

The pressure builds, the hull protests, the crew prepare for death, the boat reaches the bottom of the sea and finds... nothing.

Her final dive continues, the pressure begins to relent, but the depth gauge is useless. They have gone miles down. Hundreds of miles, thousands...

And so it goes on. And on board the crew succumb to madness, betrayal, religious mania and murder. Has the Plongeur left the limits of our world and gone elsewhere?


The Plongeur was a first for France: "an experimental vessel," verily, "powered by a new design of atomic pile, and boasting a number of innovative design features. Its very existence was a national top secret. Accordingly, its melancholy fate went entirely unreported." (p.2) Or it did till today, half a century since its mysterious disappearance. Now, though, its story can be told. And who better than Adam Roberts to do the reporting?

West of the continental shelf, the skeleton crew of the Plongeur—the plunger, if you must—set about stress testing what was then a particularly progressive vessel. In the process, its engineers expect to identify some small problems; instead, the submarine simply sinks.

Something has obviously gone catastrophically wrong, and as the Plongeur is drawn inexorably towards the ocean floor, a collision with which is apt to collapse it—though by that depth the immense water pressure will have long since spirited away the several souls aboard—its crew of courageous countrymen prepare themselves for the inevitable: the end.
But the end did not come. Instead, and gradually, the shaking calmed, and the deep buzz of vibration quietened. It was a very long drawn out diminuendo, the noise and the shaking withdrawing itself incrementally until both had almost disappeared. Impossible to believe that the implacable wrath of the ocean was diminishing—it was against all the laws of physics. (p.28)
Unbelievably, this is but the beginning of the Plongeur's story: the end is set in what seems to be a different dimension, and it's years ahead yet.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Coming Attractions | The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

Over the holidays, Genevieve Valentine blogged about her long-awaited next novel: it's called The Girls at the Kingfisher Club and I'm really very keen to read it, though it looks and sounds very different from Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti.

The novel formerly known as Gladrags is a "stunning reimagining of the fairytale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses as flappers during the Roaring Twenties in Manhattan," and there doesn't appear to be a steam machine in sight:
Jo, the first born, “The General” to her eleven sisters, is the only thing the Hamilton girls have in place of a mother. She is the one who taught them how to dance, the one who gives the signal each night, as they slip out of the confines of their father’s townhouse to await the cabs that will take them to the speakeasy. Together they elude their distant and controlling father, until the day he decides to marry them all off. 
The girls, meanwhile, continue to dance, from Salon Renaud to the Swan to the Funeral Parlor Supper Club and, finally, the Kingfisher, the club they come to call home. They dance until one night when they are caught in a raid, separated, and Jo is thrust face-to-face with someone from her past: a bootlegger named Tom whom she hasn’t seen in almost ten years. Suddenly Jo must weigh in the balance not only the demands of her father and eleven sisters, but those she must make of herself. 
With The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, award-winning writer Genevieve Valentine takes her superb storytelling gifts to new heights, penning a dazzling tale about sisterhood, freedom, and love in Jazz Age Manhattan.
I can't say I'm sorry Valentine seems to be done with steampunk—for the time being, at least: it's not a form I've ever been awfully fond of, and though she incorporated its central tenets marvellously in Mechanique, these same ideas seemed to me nearly meaningless in her terse but tender novella Terrain, which I just read for the Short Fiction Spotlight over on

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is due out—in the US, I should stress—from Atria Books in June.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Book Review | The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley

The emperor of Annur is dead, slain by enemies unknown. His daughter and two sons, scattered across the world, do what they must to stay alive and unmask the assassins. But each of them also has a life-path on which their father set them, destinies entangled with both ancient enemies and inscrutable gods.

Kaden, the heir to the Unhewn Throne, has spent eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, learning the enigmatic discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power he must master before it's too late.

An ocean away, Valyn endures the brutal training of the Kettral, elite soldiers who fly into battle on gigantic black hawks. But before he can set out to save Kaden, Valyn must survive one horrific final test.

At the heart of the empire, Minister Adare, elevated to her station by one of the emperor's final acts, is determined to prove herself to her people. But Adare also believes she knows who murdered her father, and she will stop at nothing — and risk everything — to see that justice is meted out.


Innovation is overrated.

Genre novels that do something new are released on a regular basis, and there's no question that new things are nice. Neat in theory, at least. To wit, we should applaud the authors who attempt to put original ideas into practice. But just because something's new doesn't guarantee that it's going to be great out of the gate. Innovation is initially as likely to result in the sort of dissonance that can spoil a story as it is the resonance its agents anticipate.

These days, the pressure applied to purveyors of fantasy fiction particularly, to come up with something distinct and different, something to emblazon in all caps on the back of the jacket, is palpable. Listen too closely to picky critics and you'd be forgiven for thinking that a novel that does nothing notable in terms of the furtherance of the form — a novel that plays it safe, I suppose — is no novel at all.

This is nonsense of the highest variety. There is, I think, plenty to be said for books that take hoary old tropes and put them to good use; books like The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley, which I enjoyed an awful lot — excepting one big, blokish blunder — never mind its by-the-numbers nature.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Book Review | The Echo by James Smythe

Twenty years following the disappearance of the infamous Ishiguro — the first manned spacecraft to travel deeper into space than ever before — humanity are setting their sights on the heavens once more.

Under the direction of two of the most brilliant minds science has ever seen – that of identical twin brothers Tomas and Mirakel Hyvönen — this space craft has a bold mission: to study what is being called ‘the anomaly’ — a vast blackness of space into which the Ishiguro disappeared. Between them Tomas (on the ground, guiding the mission from the command centre) and Mira (on the ship, with the rest of the hand-picked crew) are leaving nothing to chance.

But soon these two scientists are to learn that there are some things in space beyond our understanding. As the anomaly begins to test the limits of Mira’s comprehension — and his sanity — will Tomas be able to save his brother from being lost in space too?


Tomas and Mirakel Hyvönen have had exploration on the brain since they were bairns building backyard spacecraft out of discarded cardboard and handfuls of old wires and hard drives. Now the twins — identical but for a birthmark that sets Tomas apart — are all grown up and about to do for real what they've always dreamed.

When the Lära lifts off, one of the brothers will be on board; the other — the loser of the game they always play to resolve such situations — will man the microphones back at ground control. Their mission, should they choose to accept it — and indeed they do — is to investigate the anomaly Cormac Easton and the crew of the ill-fated Ishiguro stumbled into some twenty-three years ago.

In that time technology has obviously evolved... as has the anomaly this quartet revolves around; astronomers can now see it quite clearly, because of course it's grown closer. But the enterprising twins bring a crucial difference of opinion to the table too: a sense of scientific efficiency that the missing ship lacked.
Everything they did was wrong. I can pick holes. They launched from Earth, even though it made no sense, even back then. They spent money on automated systems because they believed they would add efficiency. They were wrong, as proven by their disappearance. They spent billions developing ridiculous gravity systems, something that the Russians prototyped back in the previous decade concerning gravitomagnetism. Any why? So that they could rest! So that they could feel the sensation of a ground beneath their feet! They took a journalist with them, because they spun their mission into something commercial, something outside science. They too a man who didn't serve a purpose with them on a mission that could have meant something. What did that cost them, that folly? They played everything badly, a product of moneymen rather than scientific design. It drove Tomas and myself insane. And when they went missing, the balloon deflated overnight. No more space travel. There is nothing new out there to find, and no glory to be garnered from dying in the cold expanse of space as they surely did. (pp.6-7)
There is, though... if not the glory of a great story then indubitably discovery. Thus the Lära launches, with our protagonist Mirakel — Mira to you and me — in charge of a complement of six scientists as luckless, ultimately, as the last lot.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Guest Post | The 5 Guest Posts I’ll Never ($^#*&^@) Write by Kameron Hurley

God's War is a Very Good Book. I confess I'm yet to read the rest of the Bel Dame Apocrypha—in my defense, the series is only now being rolled out locally—but when the author approached me about composing a potential guest post for you folks, I don't mind admitting how warmly I welcomed the suggestion.

Immediately I started wondering what I could possibly talk her into. Kameron Hurley has written some incredibly progressive pieces in the past—like this essay for A Dribble of Ink, currently being mooted for a Hugo—but she also writes a lot of lists. And I... I don't love lists. 

But a list with a difference? A list about lists? The more I mulled what had begun as a joke over, the more I realised how interested I'd be in reading her response. And to Kameron's credit, as you'll see, she took my suggestion (almost) completely seriously.


So, it’s guest post season for me, with work, here, here, here, here, and here and... oh, you don’t even want to see my calendar for the rest of January.

Let’s get meta instead.

When you approach bloggers for guests posts (as I approached Niall), it’s often best to ask them if there’s a particular topic they’re interested in. It’s their house, after all, and it makes sense to pick a topic of interest to their readership. Funny enough, Niall sort of (flippantly, I think) asked me what five guest posts I wouldn't write if somebody asked... and that got me thinking. 

Because, dear reader, though I’ll happily talk about health crises, institutionalized racism, and critique the SFWA—there are some topics these days that I won’t touch. 

Monday, 13 January 2014

Book Review | Channel Blue by Jay Martel

Earth used to be Galaxy Entertainment's most lucrative show. The inhabitants of the Western Galaxy — the savviest, richest demographic in the Milky Way — just couldn't get enough of the day-to-day details of the average Earthling's life.

But Channel Blue's ratings are flagging and its producers are planning a spectacular finale. In just three weeks, their TV show will go out with a bang. The trouble is, so will Earth.

Only one man can save our planet from total destruction. And he's hardly a hero...


Guys, meet Galaxy Entertainment super-producer Gerald O. Davidoff — God for short — whose work on planet Earth everyone is of course intimately familiar with. God, say hi to the guys.

*pause for cacophonous applause*

What an immense pleasure it is to have you here, back where it all began! But I understand that you're a very busy man — and your visits, I'm aware, are getting rarer by the day — so I'll keep this quick, the better to let you get right back to business. I just have to ask: what's the plan, man? I'm no great creator, of course, but all this anger and violence and hunger and hatred is getting to be a bit much. The long and short of what we all want to know, I suppose, is... what gives, God?
As you all know, I have a strong attachment to this particular world. It was my very first planet and without it I would never have become part of the Galaxy Entertainment family. But no-one can deny that its programming has fallen off quite a bit in the last few seasons, and while I, more than anyone, appreciate the quality shows that have been produced there in the past, I also need to recognise that the storylines have become too bizarre, the cast to unlikeable to sustain the ratings we have come to expect. I think we can all agree that this planet 'jumped the shark' a long time ago. Plus, the resources spent on this single world could be used to develop several planetainments in less expensive solar systems. 
As a result of these considerations, I regrettably feel that the time has come to cancel Earth. (p.2)
Wait, you what?

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Book Review | The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox

Uprooted from her home in India, Alice is raised by her aunt, a spiritualist medium in Windsor. When the mysterious Mr Tilsbury enters their lives, Alice is drawn into a plot to steal the priceless Koh-i-Noor diamond, claimed by the British Empire at the end of the Anglo-Sikh wars.

Said to be both blessed and cursed, the sacred Indian stone exerts its power over all who encounter it: a handsome deposed maharajah determined to claim his rightful throne, a man hell-bent on discovering the secrets of eternity, and a widowed queen who hopes the jewel can draw her husband's spirit back. In the midst of all this madness, Alice must discover a way to regain control of her life and fate...


Raised in lovely, lively Lahore by her ayah, a makeshift mother in place of the real parent who passed away on the birthing table, Alice Willoughby is spirited away one dark day by her father — a doctor in the employ of the Empire who deems the days ahead too dangerous for his darling daughter. To wit, he leaves little Alice in Windsor, with instructions to "learn [her] heritage. What it is to be an English child. What it is to be a Christian." (p.41)

Alas, Alice's father is unaware that the aunt who swears she will care for her in his absence harbours certain indefinable designs... on a diamond, and indeed the dead.
My father said it was summertime when we first arrived at Southampton docks. But, so often I found myself shivering and oppressed by the dreariness of day when it seemed all the colours in the world had been bleached away to a dirty grey. My father left me yearning for the only home I'd ever known to live in a house like a darkened maze where, at first, I was very often lost in the claustrophobia of walls too close, of ceilings too low, of narrow stairs that led up and up to a bedroom where the walls had been papered with rosebuds. But those flowers were pale imitations, too regimented and prim by far when compared with the fragrant, blowsy blossoms we'd left behind in India. I would lie in that bedroom and think of home, feeling hungry but never wanting to eat, with the food so bland and lacking taste. And the only thing to comfort me was to stare through the gloom to a gap in the shutters, where I sometimes saw the starlit skies and wondered if those self-same stars were shining over India. To sparkle in my ayah's eyes. (p.22)

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Milestones | 1000 and Counting

Way back when, in January 2010, I launched The Speculative Scotsman. Why? In large part because I wanted to talk to the world about Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay: a book that moved me hugely.

I wasn't sure what I'd do with a blog about genre fiction in all its multifarious forms afterwards, but I figured I'd cross that bridge when I came to it, and I did, I think. I had a tower of books to be read even then, and The Speculative Scotsman, in the beginning, gave me a great excuse to dig into it a little.

It wasn't long before review copies of new novels started arriving, lending the site some small sense of acceptance, but the icing on the great cake came when, to my surprise and delight, a few of my favourite bloggers blogged about this new blogger they'd noticed.

Me, I realised. Me! :)

It'd be a fib to say I haven't looked back since. I have, from time to time. I've struggled to keep up the pace; I've come close to burning out on books; I've lost my faith in fiction only to find it again, and again, and again. For a blogger, this is par for the course, of course. These questions come with the territory.

And what with the superblogs out there — the Tor.coms and the IO9s — the landscape looks a lot different today than it did then: one of the many ways I've been feeling my age of late. Between that and suddenly turning 30, I just don't have the energy I used to. I can't compete: that's clear.

But this was never about winning; this was about sharing something. Something special. Something I crave as much today as I did in the beginning.

Today, in any case, marks a very special blogaversary for me. One I wasn't sure I'd ever see, because sometimes it has been hard. But never mind my more maudlin moments: the vast majority of the time it's been absolute magic. Blogging is in my blood now. I don't know what I'd do without it. Without you, in truth.

This is the thousandth post I've published on The Speculative Scotsman. I can't imagine I have another thousand in me, but together... together we'll see, won't we?

Now, because it seems so fitting I can't resist, I'm off to celebrate with some Guy Gavriel Kay...

Friday, 3 January 2014

Book Review | The Madonna on the Moon by Rolf Bauerdick

November 1957: As Communism spreads across Eastern Europe, strange events are beginning to upend daily life in Baia Luna, a tiny village nestled at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. As the Soviets race to reach the moon and Sputnik soars overhead, fifteen-year-old Pavel Botev attends the small village school with the other children. Their sole teacher, the mysterious and once beautiful Angela Barbulescu, was sent by the Ministry of Education, and while it is suspected that she has lived a highly cultured life, much of her past remains hidden. But one day, after asking Pavel to help hang a photo of the new party secretary, she whispers a startling directive in his ear: “Send this man straight to hell! Exterminate him!” By the next morning, she has disappeared.

With little more to go on than the gossip and rumors swirling through his grandfather Ilja’s tavern, Pavel finds curiosity overcoming his fear when suddenly the village’s sacred Madonna statue is stolen and the priest Johannes Baptiste is found brutally murdered in the rectory. Aided by the Gypsy girl Buba and her eccentric uncle, Dimitru Gabor, Pavel’s search for answers leads him far from the innocent concerns of childhood and into the frontiers of a new world, changing his life forever.


In Baia Luna, a small village of some 250 self-sufficient souls hidden away at the base of the Carpathian Mountains, "today was like what yesterday was and tomorrow would be." (p.50)

But not for long. On the contrary, a time of great change awaits. It's November 1957, and the fictitious nation of Transmontania is about to be sucked whole-hog into the socialist bloc. Communism is of course on the cards, and whomsoever stands in the way of the Conjucator shall surely be squashed.

"About to turn sixteen [and] stuck in a swamp halfway between a boy and a man," (p.78) Pavel Botev has more immediate problems to attend to at the outset of The Madonna on the Moon, the first novel by Rolf Bauerdick, an award-winning German photojournalist. Raised by his aunt and his grandfather, a "formerly commonsensical" (p.325) sort convinced that the body of the Virgin Mary is on the moon, Pavel becomes caught up in a bizarre conspiracy which will dog him to the end of an era that has hardly started.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Season's Greetings | The Fun of the Future

Four years to the day my time with Tigana compelled me to launch this blog, 2014 is here, and though I'm still very much in holiday mode, and of course, horribly hungover, I wanted to take a second to say: welcome to the future, folks!

I can only hope it's as bright as Orange promised.

So what's to come in 2014? Well, one wonders. For me at least, not knowing is perhaps half the fun of the future — and I don't, in any great detail — but plenty, I expect, including a few fairly major changes. 

Before all that, though, stay tuned for Top of the Scots. I already have my lists locked. All that remains is for me to explain, because I imagine my choices might surprise some of you. Expect more on that momentarily. And in the meantime?

Sincerely, readers dear: I hope you all have a happy New Year. :)