Thursday, 30 December 2010

TV Review | Dexter (Season Five)

My problem with Dexter has never been with Dexter.

In his most prominent role before playing the eponymous anti-hero, Michael C. Hall was quietly commanding as Six Feet Under's put-upon brother, son and lover David Mitchell. Only with woeful rarity was he given the material with which to stand out from the powerhouse ensemble of that dark dramedy - most notably in a certain fourth-season episode those of you who've seen the show will recall all too well.

However, front and centre as Dexter Morgan, blood spatter analyst for the Miami metro division, sometime family man and erstwhile friendly neighbourhood serial killer, Hall has been a revelation. Suave, conflicted, charming, brooding, childlike and cold-blooded, his is a character unlike any other on television today - far less yesterday - and for five seasons now, he has lent Dexter an air of credibility and intelligence without which the series would as like as not be a laughing stock; if indeed it could exist without him.

A big if, that. For without Hall, what do we have here? Courtesy of Jeff Lindsay, from whose Darkly Dreaming Dexter the series initially spun off, count one neat premise: can a man "born in blood" and determined to die in similar circumstances... a man carrying a "dark passenger" addicted to the dealing of death... a man who lies, cheats and deceives those who care for him on a daily basis... can such a man be in any sense redeemed?

Certainly Hall works tirelessly at the task - and for whatever it's worth, you get the feeling the rest of the cast and crew do too. Sadly, the fact of the matter is, but a few of them are up to it. Jennifer Carpenter as Dexter's oblivious sister Deb makes the best of a bad lot; the butt end of some dire storylines in her time, Carpenter has nevertheless stood clear of the crowd. Charismatic, energetic and refreshingly direct, she wears her character like a second skin, so natural is her performance.

And there have been some stand-out supporting players. Last year, John Lithgow as the chilling Trinity killer set the bar tremendously high for future guest stars, and to precisely no-one's surprise, Julia Stiles - the reason for the season, if you will - doesn't even come close to reaching it. Her turn as gang-rape survivor and would-be protégé to our serial killing hero Lumen begins badly, ends abruptly, and is in the interim awkward, inconsistent and decidedly inappropriate on occasion.

Except for her sex, the plot thread she participates in is one we've been through  before... as is the relentless detective on Dexter's trail. Remember Doakes, from the first few seasons? Well this year, Quinn - Deb's on-again, off-again fuckbuddy - picks up where the ludicrous sergeant left off, roping in lamentably cartoonish guest star Peter Weller as a disgraced policeman looking to win back his place in the good books with one big bust.

And I'm thinking: again? Really?

After the surprise high of last season, then, not to speak of the shocking events of its finale, season five returns Dexter to its usual form, which is to say a woebegone case of could have been, would have been, should have been; and given the largely misspent dramatic potential inherent in the death of Trinity's final victim, it's harder to reconcile the series' quagmire of issues than usual. Instead of giving Dexter the time and the space to grieve, the showrunners have opted to crowd out his crisis with a retread of tired old narrative tracks. Add to that some obscenely obvious scriptwriting, a-typically awful performances from a supporting cast more suited to made-for-TV melodrama than the difficult themes Dexter means to address, an utter misfire in the form of Julia Stiles, and... well.

I take no pleasure in raking Dexter over the coals; truly, I don't. Somewhere therein there's a superb show clamouring to truly spread its wings - seasons one and four were (all things considered) a testament to that fact. Sadly, as a whole season five only serves to diminish the good that's come before... to back up startled from the bold steps the creators have taken in directions apparently come to nothing. So by all means, watch the wheels spin. Just don't expect them to take you anywhere of note - this year, at least.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Book Review | The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card

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Danny North knew from early childhood that his family was different, and that he was different from them.  While his cousins were learning how to create the things that commoners called fairies, ghosts, golems, trolls, werewolves, and other such miracles that were the heritage of the North family, Danny worried that he would never show a talent, never form an outself.

He grew up in the rambling old house, filled with dozens of cousins, and aunts and uncles, all ruled by his father.  Their home was isolated in the mountains of western Virginia, far from town, far from schools, far from other people.

There are many secrets in the House, and many rules that Danny must follow.   There is a secret library  with only a few dozen books, and none of them in English — but Danny and his cousins are expected to become fluent in the language of the books.  While Danny’s cousins are free to create magic whenever they like, they must never do it where outsiders might see.

Unfortunately, there are some secrets kept from Danny  as well.  And that will lead to disaster for the North family.


Pitched as the first volume of a catch-all, YA-friendly fantasy series with designs on encompassing every one of the genre's go-to tropes, The Lost Gate sees multiple award-winner Orson Scott Card, an author renowned for beloved sci-fi classic Ender's Game and reviled for his controversial politics, with his sights set high. Too high, perhaps? I don't know... I'm in two minds.

Speaking of which!

A tale of two worlds, linked so long ago by Loki, a powerful gatemage with the ability to twist from the very fabric of space-time magical passages between places - between even planets - but estranged from one another for centuries, The Lost Gate has a pair of adolescents act as our narrative chaperones. In the first world, Westil, Wad is freed from a tall tree in which he has been trapped for untold ages, and soon finds himself a prized advisor at the court of the kingdom of Iceway, with powers beyond the ken of any men. The other world is our own - though the Families, leftover Gods descended from Westilians stranded after Loki fell and The Great Gate with him, know it as Mittlegard.

Danny North was part of a Family once. Now he's been cast out from the secret commune where he grew up, and all because he's shown signs of being a gatemate. With nowhere else to go, he hits the road; a runaway for all intents and purposes, hitching lifts from city to city and shoplifting from Walmart just to get by. As he comes to understand his powers, Danny finds amongst the Drowthers - non-magical folk - both friends and enemies, both teachers and those who will test him. Having long hoped to escape the North's hidden smallholding, you sense Danny might have been happy to leave it at that.  Except... he has a destiny. As a gatemage, he has a chance to re-open The Great Gate between worlds, ushering in an era of bountiful peace and sharing - or else one of war; a war of Gods.

But he has to try, doesn't he?

In a fascinating explanatory afterword, Card admits The Mither Mages has been three decades in the making, suffering various false starts under the care of multiple editors, publishers and agents. "I thought of it as my best world ever, and my best magic system. I wanted to tell only stories that were worthy of it." (p.380) And there is a certain grandiosity about the worldspinning begun in The Lost Gate, particularly in Westil - Wad's chapters are far more enrapturing in that regard than Danny's - and indeed the magic system, whereby one gains "power over a type of creature or an element or force of nature by serving its interest, helping it become whatever it most wants to become." (p.379) Both seem boundlessly ambitious; capable, as per Card's modus operandi, of embracing and explaining virtually any fantastic trope - running the gamut from mystical creatures to magical abilities - the author deems include.

Whether Westil and the sympathetic, Norse-tinged magic of the Families can be counted as Card's best, as he stresses, remains to be seen - The Lost Gate is very much the first volume of a series (take what you will from that) - but whichever way you cut the mustard, the charmless misadventures of Danny North are far from "worthy" of either, as per Card's terminology. The boy's a buffoon... an insufferable show-off, mooning authority figures left, right and centre and giving cheek in the erstwhile to everyone who dares do him a kindness. There's a certain wit to his lip, I'll grant, but even then there's too much saying and not enough said.

It's a shame, then, that The Lost Gate's narrative burden is largely at Danny's command; though there's far more to Wad's tale - in meaning, action and import - reduced to interludes between episodes of overbearing slapstick it hardly has the opportunity to flourish. Given which, the component parts of this decades-in-the-making novel oftentimes feel irreconcilable with one another. With maturity, poignancy and profundity one moment and lowest common denominator toilet humour the next, Card seems to want to have his cake and eat it.

Yet for all the frustration of grand designs undermined, I wonder if The Mither Mages might yet summit the peak before it, for from time to time there's a glimmer of something extraordinary shining through the self-consciously snappy banter. And the fart jokes. And the wildly inappropriate sexual inferences. The two worlds - wherever might the twain meet? - and the welcome-all-comers magic system give every indication of being, if not on this occasion then perhaps come volume two, the great things Card insists they are. And surely by then Danny'll have grown up a bit; certainly he grates less towards the end of The Lost Gate than at the outset. I've got my fingers crossed.

But fool me once...


The Lost Gate
by Orson Scott Card

US Publication: January 2011, Tor (Forge)

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Monday, 27 December 2010

One Teapot to Rule Them All

So. Christmas.

I'd love to say it were over, that I could get back to my happy little life of reading and blogging and writing, but no. The big day's come and gone, but what with friends and relatives popping out of the woodwork like Gremlins nibbling after midnight, myself and the other half - mostly herself again (thanks to everyone who asked) - have had to put pen to paper and come up with a sectioned schedule for our plans through to New Year's Day.

As a matter of fact, I'm forestalling one obligation such by taking the time to write this... grandfolks in-law and step-mothers are the order of the day.

But I feel like such a meanie when I don't blog for any length of time, so hey, everyone!

*waves sleepily*

Just wanted to check in, see how you were all keeping, give you a space to boast about who got the best goodies from old Monsieur Claus. When I've got a touch more time to myself I'm hoping put up a post about what The Speculative Scotsman's friends and family saw fit to bequeath me. Alas, there've been no books so far, but lots of other lovely treats, not least a gorgeous and generously proportioned Sterling silver art deco-inspired teapot; I can't complain!

But I want to know: what did you all find under your tree? Do tell!


A quick update on the state of play before I nip off to go shopping with the other half's other gran. I'll have a couple of reviews up between now and Hogmanay - a piece on season five of Dexter and another as-yet TBD - and come the first, a certain blog will be celebrating a certain blogiversary. Though I couldn't possibly say which! :)

In the meantime, I've been reading and playing a pair of the notable oversights related - you might recall - in Top of the Scots a wee while ago. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, in those moments I've squirreled away to slip Ezio's invisible blade into the chops of an assortment of Borgia swine, has been easily the best in the franchise entire. Come to that, as satisfying as it's been when I've done the stabbing, thus far I've mostly left it to the old brotherhood. A quick depression of the left bumper and - would you credit it - a gang of fellow assassins shoot out of haystacks and skydive off the roofs of nearby buildings to do my dirtywork for me. Brilliant!

Oh. And as promised, I've finally gotten around to beginning my long-belated read through Under Heaven.

And it. Is. Sublime.

More on which - and lots more, if my mess of notes are anything to judge by - early in the New Year.

Meantime, here's hoping you all had a lovely Christmas. Here's hoping there's a little leftover Turkey for you to pick at while you're brewing your coffee of a morning, and that a couple of distant, momentarily forgotten relatives are yet to visit, with surprise gifts in hand. I hope amongst all the usual festive rubbish there've been a couple of treats under your tree you wonder now how you could ever have gotten by without. If you care to share, I'd love to hear about the very things.

But sure enough... nothing beats my teapot! :)

Friday, 24 December 2010

A Christmas Quandary

Ho ho ho... or humbug?

That's the question of the day. And I don't mean the sweets. It's been on my mind of late because behind the scenes of The Speculative Scotsman, amidst all the anticipatory build-up to the big birthday - you know the one - things took a sudden turn for the worse when my other half took a fall. Slipped on the unrelenting ice while at work, suffered what the folks at the hospital decided after a cursory examination was but a minor concussion; a minor concussion which after a couple of days they reclassified as severe, and only then after she'd fallen again. Good show, guys!

The excitement hereabouts has thus been a Batmite more muted than usual. And I don't mean here on the blog - though that too - but here, in my life, and hers. Truth be told they're pretty much one and the same thing anyway...

So there hasn't been a great deal of Christmas spirit in the air. Understandably, I'm sure you'll all agree. We managed to get the tree et al up before the fall, so there's that. And even with the concussion she's been up to ordering presents for friends and family online.  But with snow everywhere, sleet and sheet ice, the post has been horrendous. Unless something dramatic happens later today, and I sincerely doubt it will, less than half of the gifts we've bought between us will have turned up in time. There are going to be some carefully composed faces at the news come tomorrow, no doubt.

All of which is a bit humbug.

But snarky as I am, cutting as I can often be, I'm not actually given to relentless pessimism. It's taken me a quarter century to figure this out, but I'm a glass half full kind of guy, and though I might bemoan the state of the Royal Mail and the government for resolutely failing to deal with a little wintry weather - at a higher cost than the purely financial (this much I've experienced first hand) - and though the exhaustion of organising meals and shows and sit-downs with every obscure relative within radius of 50 miles and then the decorating, tolerating and entertaining has put something of a dampener on festivities so far... against all the odds, I'm still looking forward to Christmas.

And why is that? My best guess is that it has something to do with the fact that here in the UK, we don't celebrate Thanksgiving. We don't have a holiday dedicated to being grateful for all the things that are good, and right, and true. At least for me, the spirit of that very agreeable celebration gets all wrapped up in Christmas paper. Sure, there's presents and mulled wine and piggies in blankets to devour, and that's all well and good, but none of that's quite the point. The point isn't the gifts, it's the givers; its the folks in your life who care enough to think for a little while what thing might make you happy, who'll lay down a little hard-earned to see a smile on your face. It's the cards from the neighbours you thought hated you, the kiss from an old semi-related lady, the surprise visit from a friend you'd long since lost touch with.

I guess it's a nonsense, Christmas. But it's a nonsense I'm grateful for year in and year out. This year, I'm mostly grateful for Christmas because I get to spend it with the lady I love, whether in sickness or in health - even though she's got me on a leash because I can't be trusted to hear the bells she's taken to ringing for service.

But I certainly haven't forgotten you lovely lot. 2010 has had its ups and its downs, of course, and I'll be writing something of a themed retrospective about that come the new year - till then I fear TSS will be a quieter place than usual - but for the moment let me say that this blog has been one of the best things to have happened to me all year. All the doors it's opened, the friendships it's fostered, the people I've been able to reach - and all it took was words.

So thank you, everyone.

Merry Christmas. Have a hell of a new year; I'll see you then.

Oh, and before I go... ho ho ho! :)

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Film Review | Shutter Island

"Someone is missing," intones the theatrical poster for Shutter Island, the latest - and surely one of the greatest - from Goodfellas director extraordinaire Martin Scorsese, latterly of The Departed. But who? Who's missing?

Well, I ain't telling.

Nor, for that matter, are they.

I mean sure, they'd love for you to swallow the story they've cooked up to explain what in God's name is going on on Shutter Island, which is to say the infamous mental institution where you and your partner Chuck have been shipped off to. But you're a US Marshal. In your gut, in your heart, you know there's something more disturbing in play than the inexplicable escape of a violent lunatic by the name of Rachel Solondo - apparently vanished into thin air from a locked room surrounded by staff who swear they saw nothing. And where could she have gone, anyway? There's only the one boat to-ing and fro-ing over the sea each day - called off since your arrival because of a century storm in any event - and beyond the grounds of the asylum there's nothing but perilous cliffs and dank mausoleums, turned over in search of Solondo ten times already.

The closer you and Chuck get to the truth, the further a leap the facts of the case you've been sent to investigate seem. Something more, you're sure of it, is going on on Shutter Island. Something darker and more baffling than the disappearance of a woman who still believes the three of her children she murdered are alive by far...

Truth be told, I don't read a great deal of crime fiction, nor too many mysteries, but I'm thinking I might just have to look this Dennis Lehane fellow up. I would, too, on the strength of Shutter Island alone, the 2003 novel of his Scorsese based this stellar adaptation on, but add to that Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone, two more books I've only seen the movies of - excellent each in their way - and evidently we're looking at an author I can hardly stand to ignore any longer.

Shutter Island is many things. A sumptuously realised period piece; an evocative, chillingly atmospheric noirish conspiracy thriller; a complex ensemble of character actors at their peak performing brilliantly unnerving bit parts; an uneasy unravelling of questions of identity and responsibility. But it is, above all else, a trick. 

Shutter Island is in its entirety an elaborate ruse, in which the viewer is as complicit as any of the doctors and patients and police in and around the asylum. And as with all such films - The Sixth Sense comes first to mind - there's a chance you'll see through it. I did. At around the hour mark, I took a pot shot at the twist ending, and the cracking reveal, when it came, bore out my suspicions.

I think it speaks to just how marvellous this film is that, having seen the end on the cards long before Scorsese showed his hand, I still came away from Shutter Island slack-jawed in awe. Not to suggest that the conclusion is obvious, nor indeed in the least unsatisfying in terms of its conception or execution - as a matter of fact a minor-scale rebuttal of the twist's great orchestral crescendo would redeem Shutter Island in that regard (were it in any need of redemption, which it's not) - but it was the getting-there that got me anyway; the journey rather than the destination I so adored.

And who to hold on high for that?

I hardly need to stress what a remarkable filmmaker Martin Scorsese is on a good day. And Shutter Island tells of the very best of days. With it and The Departed, the man, the legend, seems to have handily recaptured the high points - the energy, the finesse - of his earlier work, and it's a genuine pleasure to see him so reinvigorated.

Scorsese, then, as good as goes without saying. Leonardo DiCaprio, on the other hand, has with this and Inception finally come into his own, and for all his charm and boyish good looks, he seems a revelation. I challenge you not to be taken in by his meticulously nuanced performance: conflicted, addled and invariably intense, DiCaprio alone carries the greater part of Shutter Island. Had he not been the task's equal, who knows how this stunning film would have fared?

It's all about him, after all...

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Scotsman Abroad | Dark Matter on Strange Horizons

I had dearly hoped to post a triumvirate of reviews this week - one for each of the winners of the Top of the Scots, no less. Sadly, however, certain circumstances have arisen just in time to chuck a hulking great spanner in the works: the lovely other half took a fall while at work the other day and came home concussed.

So. For the immediately foreseeable, I'm afraid blogging's going to have to take a bit of a back seat. That said, I'll do my utmost to steal a few minutes while she's snoozing and/or hallucinating (courtesy of some serious painkillers) to write up a couple of things - the better to keep you all entertained this Christmas week. And for the moment, I'd recommend you click on through to read this review of Dark Matter by Michelle Paver.

You might be somewhat familiar with the author's previous work. And by "the author," I mean me, because - would you credit it? - I sold another review! :D

God love the tiddlypeeps at Strange Horizons for editing some sense into my otherwise meandering critiques...

Anyway, do wish the other half a speedy recovery! The sooner she's better, the sooner I can get back to figuring out how to enthuse about The Habitation of the Blessed without suggesting it's like reading poetry - a statement Cat Valente would very likely kick my ass for making.

But go on, now.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Top of the Scots 2010: Raise the Red Flag

So yesterday I cast my votes for the best books of the year, and far and away the most common reaction to my choices was... surprise.

Not exactly what I'd hoped for, but oh well. I'll take what I can get.

But why surprise? Well, as per certain suggestions made on Twitter and in the comments here on TSS, in selecting my five favourites I seemed - to some - to have rather forsaken fantasy and sci-fi. Once and again, the notion that four out of the very five could most easily be classified as "horror" novels was levelled at me.

For a second, let's forget the fact that there seem to be a league of people unnaturally keen to decry me for supposedly disparaging SF&F. Let's put to one side that my number one book of the year - The Habitation of the Blessed by Cat Valente - is riddled through and through with the fantastic, while my runners-up included a typically genre-straddling China Mieville novel about a squid cult and Charlie Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.  

Let's not stress about any of that, because you know what? Those folks, they were right. They are right. From The Passage to The Reapers Are The Angels, and from Mr Shivers to Joe Hill's Horns - the horror genre seems shockingly predominant in my run-down of the best fiction of 2010.

As to that, I was as taken aback as any of those readers that made the connection. I simply hadn't thought to go through my selections with an eye to properly representing each genre of fiction I read with any regularity. What I did was hmm and hah for a few weeks about which of the 80-odd books I've gobbled up this year I most remember, and then remembered most fondly. I re-read bits and pieces of those that made the first cut, went through my reviews, had a drink and a good think. And then... well, all that horror happened.

Now I'll stand by my list till the end of time. I had to make a couple of tough choices, but at the end of the day, those are my favourite books of the year, and that's that.

I don't hate science fiction. I certainly don't despise fantasy.

I mean, no more so than I'm a hulking great misogynist. After all, four of my five favourite books were written by men. Men! And evidently I'm dead set against the British writer - not to speak of the European or the Eastern - because all five of my selections were by American authors! Truly, I am aghast.

You see what I'm getting at?

In short, then: the fact that four of the five best books of 2010 - according to me - are horror novels is for my money nothing more than an incidental factor. That they fit neatly into that genre is neither why I read them nor, resolutely, why I loved them. I read widely, and I read a lot. Everything's fair game. It just so happened. And I'm perfectly alright that it did.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Top of the Scots 2010: The Best Books

So I made you wait all week for what I'm sure most of you, having come to TSS to read about the books (and stayed, I hope, for all my burbling about films and video games), would have wanted first and foremost from of a best of 2010 thing along the lines of Top of the Scots.

That's just the kind of guy I am! :P

Well, I won't keep you any longer. The bush has been well and truly beaten. Thus, dear readers, at long last, I give you...

The Best of the Best

5. Horns
by Joe Hill

You might recall Horns featuring in Halfway Through 2010, my mid-year Best Of blog posts, and to be truthful I didn't at all expect it would still be around come the end of the year proper. And yet... I adored this story; I did, and ultimately these top whatever run-downs are perfectly subjective things. So. Much as I enjoyed Kraken, for instance, or a handful of the other books in competition for fifth position - the hardest of the lot to choose, and make no mistake - in the end Horns stood fast. For that I make no apologies.

My recollection of Joe Hill's second novel is crystal clear: an infamous local celebrity wakes up one morning with an inexplicable pair of horns that make everyone he speaks to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Horns is a markedly less self-serious narrative than all the other Top of the Scots winners, and perhaps that's why I presumed myself so ready to overlook it. Thinking back, though, Horns' true throughline is an unspeakably bittersweet love story which serves to ground all the fun and games emotionally speaking, and it's that I hark back to; that, over and above all the unlikely situations and inappropriate revelations.

As I wrote six or so months ago, "If my belief that Hill is a better writer than his father by a generous margin needed reaffirming, this would have done the trick." A statement I'll gladly stand by - even after the thrills and spills of Stephen King's recent return-to-form, Full Dark, No Stars. Roll on whatever Joe Hill has up his other sleeve, I say!

4. The Reapers Are The Angels
by Alden Bell

Ah, Temple...

Temple knows, you know. She knows that "God is a slick god [...] She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe. Like those fish all disco lit in the shallows. That was something, a marvel with no compare that she's been witness to. It was deep night when she saw it, but the moon was so bright it cast hard shadows everywhere on the island. So bright it was almost brighter than daytime because she could see things clearer, as if the sun were criminal to the truth, as if her eyes were eyes of night." (p.3)

With those very words, so began a book I called "the best thing with zombies in it in, oh... years," and I couldn't very well have said it better myself! :)

Downbeat but uplifting, poignant, resonant and ballsy as can be, The Reapers Are The Angels was one of this year's biggest surprises in literature. I'd thought the undead well and truly worn-out; more like I'd had an overdose of the rotting buggers forced down my throat, and not just by too many books with too little to say: in film and in video games and in comics, the lot, wherever you looked, there they were, and what use are they anyway?

Well, I take it back. This is what use they are. If there's a one of you lot still hasn't read this, get with the program already. It really doesn't get much better than The Reapers Are The Angels.

3. The Passage
by Justin Cronin

This is that rarest of things: a book that not only meets but exceeds the hype. And The Passage has to be the single most hyped book of the year. It's that good.
Predictably, there's been a substantial backlash against Justin Cronin's monstrously long tome; the first of three, incidentally, and I for one am hoping the others are of an equal if not greater length - the backlash be damned. Yes, it's the vampire apocalypse again, and yes, there's a bit of flab right there in the middle of The Passage we could all have done without.
But you know, I'd read it again. The spare narrative tire, the fortnight-long time investment it took me to get through the first time out and all, because nothing this year has managed to match the sheer tension and excitement I felt as a ragtag band of survivors went up against an army of hulking jumps to begin clawing back a world with no place for them.
Better than The Stand, I said, way back when. And I'd say it again. Haters gonna hate, you know? Well the hell with 'em. The Passage is stonking good stuff.

2. Mr Shivers
by Robert Jackson Bennett

I've gone on about Mr Shivers at length on TSS already, so you can count your lucky stars: I won't be subjecting you to another explosion of literary adoration today. But suffice it to say, Robert Jackson Bennett's stellar debut marked for me the sort of wondrous discovery that reminds me why I fell so hard and so fast for genre literature in the first place. "Bleak and hopeless in the mode of The Road," I wrote, "painterly and mythic, spare and powerful", Mr Shivers is all that - and more besides. The best first novel of the year, or I'll eat my keyboard.

And yours if you don't read this criminally underappreciated gem already. Don't think I won't do it!

1. The Habitation of the Blessed
by Catherynne M. Valente

Speaking of discoveries...

As Guy Gavriel Kay was to me last Winter, this season I find myself swooning all over another author, new to me: Catherynne M. Valente. I seem always to be falling for the ones with middle initials, don't I? ;)

I'll be putting up my full, forever-in-the-making review of The Habitation of the Blessed next week - alongside pieces on the other winners of Top of the Scots - and since I don't want to tread on its toes any I'll just say... astounding. The sort of astounding that had me on Amazon less than halfway through the thing, buying up everything I could find of the author's back catalogue - the ol' finances be damned.

Short, sweet and utterly sumptuous, The Habitation of the Blessed - volume one of A Dirge For Prester John - is my find of the year, without a doubt, and The Speculative Scotsman's favourite novel, genre or otherwise, of 2010 entire.

Suck on that, why don't you. :D


I said a little while ago, from first to fourth position, my selections as to the best books of 2010 came to me easily enough: the only decision that really posed a problem was what to slap in fifth. Thus, a throw-down happened in my head, between Kraken (review), Horns, and How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Horns emerged triumphant in the end, as you'll well know if you've read this far - thanks, I would think, to its perfect blend of head and heart. But it was a close-run thing, there, and though these babies lost out, I wouldn't question for a second their place in any other blogger's Best of 2010.

Each in their own way, this pair represent the very finest of hilarious, irreverent and powerfully intelligent genre fiction. They might have just missed out on placing in The Best of the Best, but they're both must-reads all the same.

Honourable Mentions

So. That's this year taken care of. But what of all the books I've read this year that've come out before 2010... or those due out next year that I've been lucky enough to score early copies of? Well, I confess there haven't been a great deal of either - the pressure to be timely has had me making my way through the TBR stack with that guiding influence in mind at all times - but I've got one of each for you, in any event.

The Hunger Games, first of all, surprised the hell out of me. I only really gave these books a shot because Mockingjay was due out and the internet had almost imploded in anticipation of the trilogy's concluding chapter. What I found in the great tale of Katniss Everdeen was a darker, smarter and more affecting thing than I'd thought possible within the confines of all-ages fantasy. Hardly able to stop myself, I read and reviewed all three books within a week (here, here and here, in that order) and though Collins' novels proved something of a case of diminishing returns, even in its weakest moments The Hunger Games is up there with the cream of the cream of the crop.

No doubt it's a little early to be declaring the best book of 2011, but I've already got a favourite in the shape of The Diviner's Tale, another stonking Corvid due out in January hereabouts, from the founder and editor of Conjunctions magazine, Bradford Morrow. I'll have a full review of this stunning magical realist narrative for you to pore over in the new year. For the moment, we'll say if only it had come out a little sooner, I wouldn't have had to make that nightmare of a choice between Kraken, Horns and How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.


Biggest Disappointments

I'm not saying The Left Hand of God (review) is the de facto "worst" book I've read this year, but it's certainly the one that fell the furthest from my expectations. And mild disapproval on you for that, internet. Mild disapproval on you for getting me all riled up over such utter tripe!

Anyway, as before, I don't plan to piss away another word reiterating how awful this overhyped abomination truly is, so.

Glaring Oversights


I still feel like an ass about this. You must all know the origin story of TSS by now - short version: if you've taken any pleasure from the blog at all this year, you've basically got Guy Gavriel Kay to thank for inspiring me to such an extent I simply had to have somewhere to say pretty things about Tigana - and so when my proof of Under Heaven arrived with me, I was, shall we say, psyched. So psyched I decided to save it for a rainy day.

I've been saving Under Heaven for myself, and indeed from myself, ever since. More fool me. I expect it be incredible. I expect, if I'd read it, it'd have placed somewhere close to The Habitation of the Blessed. But I've gone and missed my chance.

Or... wait just a cotton-pickin' minute. Have I? Is it true, that you can only read a book either before it comes out or during its week of release, or is it hooey? How's about - damn the blogger's bargain - I read it over Christmas, like I did Tigana to begin with?

God, that sounds so perfect it's almost like I planned it. :D

Final Thoughts

Right then, that's my marching orders sorted. And I couldn't be happier. Here's hoping you've enjoyed Top of the Scots some - I know I have. Maybe even added a couple new books onto your Amazon wishlists and the like. Nothing would make me gladder than to think there are a couple of folks out there reading and adoring something because I helped recommend it to you. More than all the free books, the dubious internet celebrity, the pull quotes spreading word of TSS far and wide, even the letters and emails from authors and editors and fellow bloggers - more than any other thing, and much more: here's to that.

But wait. Are you getting the feeling Top of the Scots is over? Well, no. Not so much. Sure, the lists are behind us, but the end of the year celebrations have a whole other week left in 'em. I'm taking this thing all the way through to Christmas!

And come the new year, I've a whole other gaggle of goodies for you all - that is presuming I can find the time to write up everything I hope to between the tinsel of festivities strung between now and then.

To that, then. Speak soon! :)

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Top of the Scots 2010: The Best Games

Yesterday, we kicked things off with a look at the best of the year in terms of film. Today, just that much more of a tease, we're gonna talk video games.

You all play the old vidja games, right? :)

Well, perhaps there'll be those of you too proud or snooty or old to have a home console - I won't hold it against you. Not overly much. For myself, I'm not ashamed to hold my head up high when I say I believe video games are an important enough medium of entertainment - in the future if not now, not quite - that I consider them the equal of cinema. And yes, the equal even of literature.

Those of you who're apt to disagree with the spirit of that statement, maybe it'd be for the best if you looked away now.

Still looking? Well, ladies and gentlemen, let me present you with...

The Best of the Best

5. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
dev. Ninja Theory

If you'll recall, it wasn't so long I was tooting the old trumpet about Enslaved.

Reading through that review, I see I found a lot about Heavenly Sword developer Ninja Theory's latest to complain about, and looking back - looking back all of a few weeks to when I wrote Enslaved up - perhaps there are enough niggles to put most potential players off. I know I wouldn't hold it against you.

But whatever Enslaved's issues, its narrative and moreover its characters are so superb that it was easy for me to overlook the hand-holding, the simplistic combat, the dodgy frame rate, and all the rest of it. Thanks in no small part to a powerhouse performance by the once and future Gollum Andy Serkis, Trip and Monkey are a duo unlike any other in gaming this year, and I'd gladly sit through another 10-12 hours of woefully linear gameplay just to see what they get up to next.

Not that that's ever going to happen; hardly three months out, you can already score Enslaved for less than half of its release price. Sales, eh? Oh well.

4. Dead Rising 2: Case Zero
dev. Blue Castle Studios

Way back when I first got my 360, I played the original Dead Rising. Largely because there wasn't a whole lot else to play at the time, but also because there were a whole load of folks who loved it - who still do.

I shouldn't beat around the bush: I wasn't one of 'em.

So when Dead Rising 2: Case Zero, a standalone prequel to the belated sequel, appeared for download one Wednesday towards the end of the summer for a measly 400 spacebucks, I took the plunge expecting... not a whole lot, really. I got one of only two games I've cared enough to replay this year. It didn't hurt that Case Zero was short; probably you could beat it inside of an hour, if you know what to expect and when. But you'd be missing so much.

In terms of value for money, whatever its linear length, few games released this year come close to Case Zero. Not even Dead Rising 2 proper, which I certainly enjoyed, though I found myself fatigued, I'm afraid to say, by the sheer depth of experience to be had with that game. So Case Zero, in short: all the joy of Dead Rising's very much acquired mechanics, with much less fucking around.

Here's to Case West, eh? :)

3. Mass Effect 2
dev. Bioware

This generation's Star Wars, they've said. I'll go one further: for me, the sprawling canon of the universe Mass Effect and its far superior sequel share, and moreover my involvement in it, far and away exceeds any passing fondness I've felt for George Lucas' very much of-its-time trilogy.

This generation's Star Wars, they've said. I'm saying Star Wars can take a hike; I'd take Mass Effect 3 over yet another bit of Star Wars fluff any day of the week. As they say, enough said.

2. Limbo
dev. Playdead

Probably you can tell I'm an avowed supporter of the downloadable game. Well, the downloadable game has come a way this year, with superb extensions to some already-stellar experiences in the form of Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmares and Minerva's Den, the Bioshock 2 add-on, not to mention the likes of Super Meat Boy, Pacman Championship Edition DX, and Dead Rising 2's superlative payquel.

But Limbo tops the lot. It's short, sure - four hours on the outside - but those scant hours possess an almost transcendent purity hardly evident in gaming today, what with the overriding design philosophy of most projects being "bigger, better and more bad-ass." The downloadable game has worked as an antidote to that ideology: as the triple-A has risen, and become exponentially engorged in matters of scale and grandeur, its antithesis has taken the road less travelled - and no one game is a better testament to the oddly transformative power of the medium than Limbo, God's own game. So it's four hours long. So what?

If you haven't played it already, consider these your marching orders.

1. Red Dead Redemption
dev. Rockstar San Diego

Now as much as I like to champion the little guy, Red Dead Redemption is all the argument one would need to make a case in favour of the big hitters on the opposite end of the gaming spectrum.

I called out Red Dead Redemption as my game of the year so far in Halfway Through 2010, saying "I had high hopes for [it] - any game from the makers of GTA will get my blood pumping - but this remarkable piece of work exceeded every one," and having since returned to the new Old West courtesy of its wickedly whimsical Halloween expansion pack, my feelings for Rockstar San Diego's unlikely masterpiece haven't been diminished one iota. Whether I'm roaming the wilderness in search of some legendary bear or kicking back with the fam'ly in the Marston Ranch, herding horses, Red Dead Redemption is deeply engaging from one end to the other: mature, confident and unflinching in narrative terms, natural and immersive in its myriad mechanics, and stunning in its representation of a time and a place you don't often see in any medium these days - more's the pity.

The Speculative Scotsman's game of the year, then. Of course it is.



It says a lot about the year in gaming that I can only just squeeze in the likes of Halo: Reach and Fallout: New Vegas. I've had none of the technical trouble with Obsidian's return to the wasteland they first brought to life most game journos seems to have run aground of, which has been nice. The only reason New Vegas is here in the Runners Up category rather than with to the big boys above is simply because I've played it before - you know, in Fallout 3. Not to mention The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I'm good and ready for this engine to be retired now, I think, though I've certainly enjoyed its sending-off.

As to Halo: Reach (review), well, it's hands-down Bungie's best game. I enjoyed the campaign a great deal, and I mean to return to the multiplayer - at least for a little while - just as soon as I can find the time, but sadly I don't think I'll ever hold Halo in the same adoring light some gamers do. To each their own and all that. Me? I had my fun with it, and I'm glad I did. Perhaps one day I'll have some more.

Still and all, it ain't no Super Meat Boy. ;)

Honourable Mentions

Actually, no. Somehow I manage to keep pretty current in terms of video games, and offhand I can't think of many left over from last year that I only played this year. That is except Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, which I overlooked initially because - I'll be honest about it - it was on the Wii. Not exactly my console of choice. Not even my favourite kitchen appliance.

Anyway, as I said in the summer, "I have a right soft spot for Silent Hill, and so many memories. Playing the first one into the night in the loft of my parents' house with an old friend; Silent Hill 2 haunting my dreams for weeks; bonding with the other half over a shared love of the old games; generally having the bejesus scared out of me on a regular basis. Resident Evil is fun and all, but it has nothing on Silent Hill. Sadly, the series rather went to the dogs after the original studio dissolved and development duties were handed over to a series of Western studios. The latest of that lineage, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, wasn't perfect by a long stretch... but it did something different with a series close to my heart I'd thought exhausted. It gave me hope, and that's something. It also gave me a scarily accurate psychological profile of myself..."

Biggest Disappointments

This category has been something of a struggle for me. Six months ago, Bioshock 2 sat up there alongside Final Fantasy XIII, but in light of Minerva's Den, an abbreviated single-player expansion pack which worked to put right so many of 2K Marin's initial missteps, I don't know that I have it in my heart to slam one of my favourite franchises all over again.

Perhaps Bioshock underwhelmed me - certainly, in the final countdown, it didn't disappoint me in the way Square Enix's latest Final Fantasy did. In Halfway Through 2010 I wrote that "The slog through the first 25 hours of Final Fantasy XIII taught me I might be over RPGs," and with the other half of the year behind me, I haven't gone back to this game as I thought I might. Nor, at this point, will I ever - my PS3 died a sorry death earlier in the year, I lost all my save files, and the thought of suffering through that selfsame slog just to get to the bit where I hear Final Fantasy XIII picks up near-enough turns my stomach.

So thanks, Square Enix, but no thanks. Next time you make a game, how about you spend a little less than the time it'd take for me to play three other games teaching me how to play your one? Honestly.

Glaring Oversights

A multiplayer-focused continuation of Assassin's Creed 2 was not at all where I expected this franchise to go next - though I hear it has a substantial single-player campaign to dig into as well, and believe you me, I mean to. There's nothing quite like skydiving off an impossible tower into a handy bail of hay, then stabbing a dude in the face. From what I understood, this time out I can have other dudes stab dudes in the face for me, which sounds... interesting.

I'll certainly get to Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood in short order: the only reason I haven't as yet is simply for lack of the time to. But that, surely that's exactly what the Christmas holidays are for!

Final Thoughts

So movies... check. Video games... check. Whatever could be left?

Could it be books? Could tomorrow's Top of the Scots finally be about the books? Or might I have invented a whole new category of things to rattle off lists in relation to, just to mess with you a little more?

Chill out: no. Of course I haven't. The Best Books will be on the blog tomorrow. Stay tuned! :)