Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Book Review | The Unquiet House by Alison Littlewood

Mire House is dreary, dark, cold and infested with midges. But when Emma Dean inherits it from a distant relation, she immediately feels a sense of belonging.

It isn't long before Charlie Mitchell, grandson of the original owner, appears claiming that he wants to seek out his family. But Emma suspects he's more interested in the house than his long-lost relations. 

And when she starts seeing ghostly figures, Emma begins to wonder: is Charlie trying to scare her away, or are there darker secrets lurking in the corners of Mire House?


Five months since her parents passed away, the bereaved, Emma Dean, inherits a house in West Fulford. "It was run down and drab and unkempt and unclean, but even so, something in it called to her. She could easily imagine this place filled with life, with parties, the distant laughter of children. [...] It was a shame—wrong, even—that somewhere so lovely should be locked up and abandoned." (p.10)

Pleased to have a project to occupy her thoughts, she sets about renovating the place, but though Emma means to make Mire House magnificent once more, it seems the house has other plans for its mawkish new occupant. Days into her stay she ends up locked in a closet in an ordeal that takes its toll on the whole of Alison Littlewood's sinister new novel.

It's only thanks to the intervention of Charlie—a distant relative who really should have inherited the house—that Emma sees the light of day again. But has he come to help her? Or are his designs rather darker?

Forty years before Emma's story, Frank Watts and his friends play a dangerous game on the property, tormenting its terrifying tenant: an old man who moved into Mire House many moons ago in the hope of having a family, but whose beloved wife died before she could give him children. Mr Owens has been on his own ever since—growing stranger by the day, so they say—to wit, when he catches Frank sneaking about his home, our boy expects a beating at the least. Instead, a bond of friendship forms between him and the formerly horrid householder... a bond that is tested when Frank's perpetually distressed mother gets wind of it.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Book Review | The Eye of Zoltar by Jasper Fforde

The Mighty Shandar, the most powerful wizard the world has ever seen, returns to the unUnited Kingdoms. Clearly, he didn't solve the Dragon Problem, and must hand over his fee: eighteen dray-weights of gold.

But the Mighty Shandar doesn't do refunds, and vows to eliminate the dragons once and for all—unless sixteen year old Jennifer Strange and her sidekicks from the Kazam house of enchantment can bring him the legendary jewel, the Eye of Zoltar.

The only thing that stands in their way is a perilous journey with a 50% Fatality Index—through the Cambrian Empire to the Leviathan Graveyard, at the top of the deadly Cadir Idris mountain. It's a quest like never before, and Jennifer soon finds herself fighting not just for her life, but for everything she knows and loves...


Over the years, the Troll Wars have taken a terrible toll on the Kingdoms of Britain. All but a few of these fights have been finished in a matter of minutes—trolls, it transpires, are hardy targets—nevertheless countless lives have been lost to this pointless conflict... leading, among other things, to an overabundance of orphans. And what are orphans for if not enslaving, eh?

Jennifer Strange, the narrator of Jasper Fforde's fun-filled fantasy fable, was one of the lucky ones:
Instead of being sold into the garment, fast-food or hotel industries, I got to spend my six years of indentured servitude with a company named Kazam, a registered House of Enchantment run by the Great Zambini. Kazam did what all Houses of Enchantment used to do: hire out wizards to perform magical feats. The problem was that in the past half-century magic had faded, so we were really down to finding lost shoes, rewiring houses, unblocking drains and getting cats out of trees. (p.2)
To make matters worse, the Great Zambini immediately disappeared, leaving Jennifer to save Kazam from a fate worse than death... dreaded irrelevance! In The Last Dragonslayer, she did exactly that—then, in The Song of the Quarkbeast, she got mixed up in the machinations of an idiot king. Now, having "saved dragons from extinction, averted war between the nations of Snodd and Brecon and helped the power of magic begin to re-establish itself," (p.3) our ever so patient protagonist—sweet sixteen this year—finds herself in a bit of a pickle.

Actually, the problem might be more of a ghost pepper than your typical pickle, because Kazam's actions have attracted the wrath of the Mighty Shandar. One unintended consequence of Jennifer's aforementioned intervention was to make a mockery of the professional pride of the most powerful wizard in the world, who'd been hired, as it happens, to destroy all dragons. Kazam can either sacrifice Feldspar Axiom Firebreath IV and, um, Colin, or do as Shandar demands, and seek out the massively powerful magical artifact known only as the Eye of Zoltar.

If it exists.

Which is at least as unlikely as Jennifer's chances of surviving for long enough in the dangerous Cambrian Empire to get to the Leviathan Graveyard (about which no tales are told, because no one's survived to tell them) at the top of Cadir Idris (a mountain so monolithic that its peak has never been seen) where the Eye of Zoltar is said to be stashed. Assuming it isn't a tall tale in the first place.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Book Review | The Empire of Time by David Wingrove

There is only the war.

Otto Behr is a German agent, fighting his Russian counterparts across three millennia, manipulating history for moments in time that can change everything.

Only the remnants of two great nations stand and for Otto, the war is life itself, the last hope for his people.

But in a world where realities shift and memory is never constant, nothing is certain, least of all the chance of a future with his Russian love...

It's 2999, and what do you know? The world is at war... or else what's left of it is.

Only "the remnants of two great nations" remain—Russia and Germany, refreshingly—and having lasted this long, and suffered so much over said centuries, neither side will accept anything less than the eradication of its eternal enemy. Thus, they fight. But with the Earth a nuclear blast-blackened shadow of its former self, the only battleground they have at hand is the past:
The thing is, we're both spread thin. I mean, three thousand years, and only a couple of hundred agents to police them. No wonder we miss things. But then, so do they. It's a game of chess—the most complex game imaginable—only the moves can be anything, and the board... 
The board is everywhere and any time. (p.16)
Our narrator Otto Behr is, at the outset, an agent engaged in an operation in the latter days of the Crusades when he's pulled out of the period to assist with a major manoeuvre in World War II era Germany. Here, another operative has been helping Hitler win the coming conflict at the same time as attempting to temper his more monstrous qualities. Sickening as it is, Seydlitz's plan is borderline brilliant, and abominably ambitious. It's "a direct assault upon the very heartland of Russia—and if this works..." (p.34) why, if this works, the long war will be all but won.

You might think that'd be that, but it's not, natch:
You see, nothing is ever straightforward in Time. If we both did the same old things, time and again, it would soon become predictable. And though the aim is to win—to eradicate the enemy—there is also a feeling, and I know I'm not alone in this, that the game is of itself a satisfaction, and a deep one at that. 
I like to outguess them, to prove myself not only quicker and tougher, but also smarter than they are. They outnumber us three to one and they are good [...] but we are better. We have to be simply to survive. (p.139)
Surviving what's to come will be all the harder, however, because Russian agents have been aware of Germany's great operation from day dot, and before it can come to something, they step in, seize Seydlitz, and use his DNA to infiltrate the future, too.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Status Update | An Evil Easter

Over the Easter weekend, I was beside myself with surprise to find that I had a few hours free.

To be clear, this has not been the norm for me recently. Indeed, it's been brutal hereabouts this year: at home, 2014 to date has been a combination of sickness and sadness, and at work, with most of my students sitting their English exams soon, trying to keep on top of my various other obligations has been hard... hence the lack of late of what I want to call casual content here on The Speculative Scotsman.

With a little luck, though, that should be sorted shortly, and given the wonderful weather this weekend—oh what fun it was to sit in the sun!—suddenly it feels like summer is nearly here. I won't give anything away today, but I have big plans for the holidays, when they happen. Plans that I've been hatching for a period of years.

In any event, this weekend, I found myself with a few extra hours, and I deliberately did something different with them. Something I wasn't sure I ever would do. Readers... I started playing a certain game.

And I discovered, despite my doubts, that I am prepared to die. Again and again and again, in a cycle of violence I was sure would make me hateful. But it hasn't so far. How about that?

That's really all I wanted to say. Dark Souls II has dibs on the rest of my day. :)

But hey, if there are any old hands out there, a few words of advice for a Dark Souls amateur would be very welcome.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Book Review | Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Three strangers, each isolated by his or her own problems: Adaora, the marine biologist. Anthony, the rapper famous throughout Africa. Agu, the troubled soldier. Wandering Bar Beach in Lagos, Nigeria's legendary mega-city, they're more alone than they've ever been before.

But when something like a meteorite plunges into the ocean and a tidal wave overcomes them, these three people will find themselves bound together in ways they could never imagine. Together with Ayodele, a visitor from beyond the stars, they must race through Lagos and against time itself in order to save the city, the world... and themselves.

"There was no time to flee. No time to turn. No time to shriek. And there was no pain. It was like being thrown into the stars."


At the outset of Nnedi Okorafor's new novel, three strangers meet on Bar Beach, "a place of mixing" which provides "a perfect sample of Nigerian society." (p.7) But this evening the sea is uneasy, for from the Gulf of Guinea comes a booming sound so deep that it rattles the teeth of the few who hear it.

Agu is a military man who's been attacked by his ahoa after refusing to stand silently by while his superior officer sexually assaulted a civilian. He's come to the beach to take stock of his situation—as has Adaora, a marine biologist and mother of two whose "loving perfect husband of ten years had hit her. Slapped her really hard. All because of a hip-hop concert and a priest. At first, she'd stood there stunned and hurt, cupping her cheek, praying the children hadn't heard. Then she'd brought her hand up and slapped him right back." (p.8)

The third of our three is the renowned rapper Anthony Dey Craze, who's apparently popped "out for a post-concert stroll." (p.9) He and Adaora and Agu have been drawn, inexorably, to the same spot, where they spend a few seconds exchanging pleasantries before being sucked into the sea... and summarily spat out. But the roiling waters have disgorged something far stranger than they—namely an alien.
You have named me Ayodele. You people will call me an alien because I am from space, your outer heavens, beyond. I am what you all call and ambassador, the first to come and communicate with you people. I was sent. We landed in your waters and have been communicating with other people there and they've been good to us. Now we want your help. (p.37)
Adaora doesn't take much convincing, but she knows the world will, so she transports Ayodele to her lab and studies a skin sample which confirms her feelings. Enter her husband, Chris: a born again born again who insists Ayodele is a witch and runs screaming to his preacher when Adaora tells him to take a hike.

Their housekeeper Philo can't keep a secret either. She shoots some footage on her phone and shows it to her boyfriend Moziz, a scam artist who sees in this situation an opportunity to turn a proper profit. He and his friends plan to capture and ransom Ayodele. But one of them is a member of the Black Nexus, a secretive LGBT body whose members imagine Ayodele—who can shapeshift from man to woman at will—will almost certainly accept them, spurring on the world to do so too.

In this way word gets out that there's an alien about, and soon, chaos reigns in Lagos...

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Book Review | The Happier Dead by Ivo Stourton

The Great Spa sits on the edge of London, a structure visible from space. The power of Britain on the world stage rests in its monopoly on the Treatment, a medical procedure which transforms the richest and most powerful into a state of permanent physical youth. The Great Spa is the place where the newly young immortals go to revitalise their aged souls. 

In this most secure of facilities, a murder of one of the guests threatens to destabilise the new order, and DCI Oates of the Metropolitan police is called in to investigate. In a single day, Oates must unravel the secrets behind the Treatment and the long-ago disappearance of its creator, passing through a London riven with disorder and corruption. As a night of widespread rioting takes hold of the city, he moves towards a climax which could lead to the destruction of the Great Spa, his own ruin, and the loss of everything he holds most dear.


As one of the twentieth century's most missed musicians once wondered, who wants to live forever?

A better question to ask, perhaps: who among us doesn't?

As far back as in The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the world's first literary works, we have dreamed as a people of sidestepping death; as far back as that, and further, immortality—whether through mythical or material means—has fascinated us in fiction and in fact.

According to certain scientists, these discoveries may be made mere decades from today, thus the promising premise of The Happier Dead. In the near future of Ivo Stourton's new book, eternal life is indeed achievable, but far from free, I'm afraid. You could spend your entire natural life putting every penny you earn in a pot and you'd still struggle to cough up the deposit.

But in a society where passing away has become an embarrassment, what price wouldn't you pay to avoid dying one day?

The magic happens in an egg-shaped structure so monolithic that it has altered the landscape of London, where Stourton stages the murder mystery at the haemorrhaging heart of The Happier Dead. The Great Spa can be seen from space, even, and "at its uppermost limit, the great red beacon on the top was so close to the rainclouds that the light illuminated them beneath with a cherry-red glow, giving the sky above [...] the look of a vast special effect, a stage show for the passing motorists." (p.15) Fittingly, then, treatment within this modern day Tower of Babel is the preserve of the ridiculously rich—as well as those with connections, yes.

But there are also those willing to sacrifice more than money in exchange for an immortality ticket. Detective Chief Inspector Oates calls them Eddies: poor people, presumably, who can be talked into confessing to anything—though in practice they tend to take the fall for murders—so long as they're assured a top-tier treatment at the end of whatever sentence they get. To wit, when a man dies very violently in the safe haven that the spa is meant to represent, and a groundskeeper admits to killing him, Oates' first priority is to establish whether Ali Farooz is an assassin or a patsy.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Guest Post | "From Ceres to Saga: Research and Inspiration" by E. J. Swift

One of the nicest things about getting a writing career off the ground is the point where someone asks if you can contribute something to a project. There’s a warm fuzzy glow when this happens, and it’s almost impossible to resist, because however little time you have, it feels like a privilege to be asked. This is especially the case when the brief is as exciting as a project as The Lowest Heaven, a solar-system themed anthology which was published by Jurassic last summer.

By the time I came on board, most of the major planets had been snapped up, and my choices came down to Ceres and the Oort Cloud. Whilst the Oort Cloud got kudos for being generally weird and cool (with some wonderful theories expounded on Wikipedia and elsewhere), I wasn’t sure I could do it justice in the short time I had to write the story.

After some research into Ceres, though, there were a couple of things on the table that caught my attention:
  • In mythology, Ceres is the goddess of agriculture, fertility and maternal relationships.
  • Despite its lowly dwarf planet/large asteroid status, Ceres occupies a rather strategic point in the solar system, and has an icy mantle, the possibility of water below and the potential for mining.
Taking the motherly relationships angle, my original idea was to write something around an astronaut/explorer mother and her relationship with her daughter. The brief for the anthology was to take inspiration from the planets, rather than to locate the stories geographically within the solar system, but I was intrigued by the concept of the lengthy time and distances that would be involved in early space travel, and how that might impact on familial relationships. Initially I had the daughter character pegged at a child or teenage age, and thought the focus of the story would be on growing up with a mostly absent parent.

Then I stumbled across a story by the author Joe Dunthorne which was written in the first person plural, and something sparked in my head. I’ve always been a huge fan of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, a creepily atmospheric novel which sustains a first person plural voice throughout. But I’d never come across it used anywhere else, until now. What if I could try a collective voice with this?

After I’d pinned down the voice, the scope of the story broadened and suddenly I was writing something from the perspective of three adults looking back on their lives. For once, the title to the story was easy.

'Saga's Children' is available to read for free on Pornokitsch and an audio version is available in this episode of Starship Sofa.


E. J. Swift is the author of Osiris and Cataveiro, the first two volumes in The Osiris Project trilogy. Her short fiction has been published in Interzone magazine, and appears in anthologies including The Best British Fiction 2013 and Pandemonium: The Lowest Heaven. She is shortlisted for a 2013 BSFA Award in the short fiction category for her story Saga’s Children.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Book Review | A Love Like Blood by Marcus Sedgwick

I've chased him for over twenty years, and across countless miles, and though often I was running, there have been many times when I could do nothing but sit and wait. Now I am only desperate for it to be finished.

In 1944, just days after the liberation of Paris, Charles Jackson sees something horrific: a man, apparently drinking the blood of a murdered woman. Terrified, he does nothing, telling himself afterwards that worse things happen in wars.

Seven years later he returns to the city—and sees the same man dining in the company of a fascinating young woman. When they leave the restaurant, Charles decides to follow...


I've often heard it said that the littlest things in life can have the biggest impact—an assertion evidenced by Charles Jackson, a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps whose subsequent career in the field of haemophilia springs from something seemingly insignificant. Celebrating the liberation of Paris from the hands of the Nazis, he hunkers down in a bunker, only to half-see something weird: someone gulping blood from the warm body of a woman.

A vampire? Perhaps. But more likely a mere madman. "It was ludicrous; it was, as I’ve said, something I should not have seen, something wrong. Not just violence, not just murder, but something even more depraved than those acts." (p.28) Absent any evidence that a crime has been committed, Charles does his level best to dismiss this wicked thing he's witnessed. But the damage is done, and the unsettling story told in A Love Like Blood begun.

A period of years later Charles' work brings him back to France, where he is surprised to find the focus of his all but forgotten fascination at lunch with a lovely lass hailing from the Hamptons. In the first, he follows her hoping she might tell him more about her benefactor—an Estonian Margrave, apparently, looking to learn the language—but before long Charles realises he has feelings for Marian... feelings she seems ready to return.

Alas, their chance at romance falls apart practically before it's started. When she suddenly stops replying to his regular letters, he asks after her at her former haunts, where he's made aware that Marian has a heart condition, and has had to head home to seek treatment. He never sees or hears from her again.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Book Review | The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Harry August is on his deathbed. Again.

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.

Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. "I nearly missed you, Doctor August," she says. "I need to send a message. It has come down from child to adult, passed back through generations from a thousand years forward in time. The world is ending, and we cannot prevent it. So now it's up to you."

This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.


You will die, one day. As will I. Our time will come, and we will go. As the most memorable character in Claire North's astonishing novel notes, that is "the fundamental rule of this universe. The very nature of life is that it must end." (p.235)

Many of us spend our days denying death, yes, but whether it is conscious knowledge or not, the inescapable fact that the worst will occur factors into our every decision. The paths we take, the choices we make—all are dictated by the finiteness of our futures. With just one life to live, our achievements are all the more meaningful. With no guarantee, really, that there's more than this, our mistakes have to matter.

But what if they didn't? What if death were not the end? What if there were... exceptions?

According to North, they're called "kalachakra," or "ouroborans," (p.41) and Harry August—whose first fifteen lives this dense text documents—is one of an exclusive few: an immortal among us, blessed—or cursed, depending on your perspective—to be born again... and again... and again.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Book Review | Descent by Ken MacLeod

How far would you go for the truth? 

Ball lightning. Weather balloons. Secret military aircraft. Ryan knows all the justifications for UFO sightings. But when something falls out of the sky on the hills near his small Scottish town, he finds his cynicism can't identify or explain the phenomenon.

And in a future where nothing is a secret, where everything is recorded on CCTV or reported online, why can he find no evidence of the UFO, nor anything to shed light on what occurred? Is it the political revolutionaries, is it the government or is it aliens themselves who are creating the cover-up?

Or does the very idea of a cover-up hide the biggest secret of all?


The truth is out there, somewhere. But pinning it down can be pretty tricky.

In "an iffy skiffy future like none I would or could have imagined in my teens," (p.7) Scotland is independent, airships ride high in the sky, everyone wears capture glasses, and the poke bonnet has come back into fashion. Ridiculous, right? But that's reality, for Ryan—a teenage boy at the beginning of Ken MacLeod's new book whose coming of age over its conspiratorial course is dictated by the close encounter he has in the company of his neanderthal pal Calum.

It's not as if they set out to see something weird—they're just bored boys who decide one day, mid revision, to hike up a hill—but "that's how it always begins," isn't it? "You wanted a walk. It was a wet afternoon and you fancied a drive. The night was vile and you were minded to check on the cow." (p.14) And then the aliens came!

Actually, scratch that. The aliens come a little later. What happens on the hill, where Calum and Ryan are waiting out weather that's taken a turn for the terrible, is unusual, sure, but the "silvery sphere" (p.20) that appears may be no more than a drone, and the blinding white which knocks both boys unconscious for hours afterwards could be ball lightning... right?

They pair are understandably shaken by their shared experience, but whilst Calum learns to live with it, Ryan takes somewhat longer to move on—not least because of his dreams that evening. He is "terrified, but not surprised," to be visited by something other. "The creature was a cliche, your average working alien, a bog-standard Grey. About four and a half feet tall, with a bit oval head, skinny torso, spindly limbs, a ditto of nostrils and a lipless little em-dash of a mouth." (p.44) It transports him to its mothership, where a handsome pair of alien assistants impart some familiar words of wisdom before making our man-in-the-making masturbate and sending said back to bed.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Guest Post | "Country Weird" by Steve Rasnic Tem

The gothic tends to thrive in less populated regions of the world, the lands where there are more trees, more stones, than people, environments which nourish both self-reflection and loneliness. And yet it also requires, I think, some sense of a history, evidence that human beings once walked there, that they studied and dreamed, and raised families who would someday mourn their departure, there, right where you’re standing, on the grave of another person’s life.

I first encountered the English ghost story in high school, thanks to some scattered volumes in my great grandfather’s library. The house containing that library, built on a distant southwest Virginia mountain ridge before America’s Civil War, was one of the better examples of ornate gingerbread in the region. My grandfather grew up there. There was a portrait of his sister in the parlor—she’d died a child in the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic. I still own one of her schoolbooks.

I spent a number of summers in that house which murmured and talked though many a hot and humid night, hiding under the covers with a book and a flashlight. There were no streetlights, and the nearest house was some distance away. I never knew a darker place. It was in this setting where I first read those tales of English churchyards and ancient architecture, crumbling ruins and half-glimpsed presences in the curtains, under the sheets, in the shadows behind a door. Helpless victims were in abundance, as were sinister presences.

It all seemed terribly familiar, somehow. The settings weren’t that different from the rotting old houses and abandoned buildings (rarely torn down) nestled within the overgrown landscape of the American South. The characters were different—I knew very few scholars, or priests. But there was a similar sense of the impositions of history, of unforgivable racial sins committed in a distant past, and an obsessive interest in spiritual matters, resulting both from the anguish of loss and the sincere hope that there might be a better and richer life beyond. Southern religion, as I experienced it, was a scary thing. It encouraged desperate and eccentric (sometimes grotesque) behavior, and at times unhealthy relationships.

Readings in Faulkner, O’Connor, and McCullers bolstered this comparison, and my growing sense of the Southern Gothic. I also became aware that the particular sub-region of the South where I lived, Appalachia, had its own flavor of the gothic. It’s a land of hollows and high mountain walls, a limestone karst geology riddled with caves and sinkholes. The residents were even more isolated than in the rest of the South, more eccentric, more suspicious of outsiders.

My two most recent books stem from that time of early discovery. My latest story collection, Here With the Shadows (Swan River Press), is my attempt to emulate those early 20th century English ghost stories I loved so much. And Blood Kin (Solaris Books), alternating between Depression-era Appalachia and the same region in the present day, is full-on Southern Gothic ramping up into horror.