Thursday, 30 June 2011

We Interrupt This Broadcast | Can Not Compute

Gosh, but it's been awffy quiet around here this week, hasn't it?

Sorry about that. Needless to say it's entirely my fault. Every day I ask far more than is reasonable of my grizzled old computer machine, and most days, within reason, it lets me do what I want. Mostly...

How tolerant!

Alas, late last week, I fear my desktop cashed in its last pension cheque. Either everything must have gone wrong all at once, or this pitiful excuse for a computer has been hanging by an IDE cable for God only knows how long. In any case, it's done. Gone, baby, gone - to the big OS in the sky. Chumming AV+ up a blind alley littered with minidiscs and Betamax tapes.

Thus, the week's been spent with fingers crossed and eyes peeled for a good deal on a replacement rig. And I've been working extra special hard (yessir I have) to be sure there's pennies to pay for it if and when The Machine of My Dreams comes up for a couple hundred songs.

It hasn't happened yet. But it will. Meantime, best expect some slight disruption to your usual service. Much as I like to tell myself I can always get a blog together on my tablet... you know, for all the pros of my Transformer, not so much. Certainly I can't stand to use its touch keypad for the length of time it takes to put together a review, for instance.

So. I'm calling a quick time out. I shouldn't be gone for long - next week is the deadline I've set myself - and between now and then I've scheduled a few reviews that have been knocking about in draft status for ages, praying that a moment just like this comes along. Which just goes to show: you've got to be careful what you wish for...

Anyway, when I come back, you might rightly expect to see a few changes around here. Time for a redesign, do you think? At the very least it's long past time for me to refresh a couple of the outdated widgets over on the right there. Come to that, if you'd like to see your site featured on the ol' blogroll, or a site you think really should be on my radar, do feel free to drop me an email with introductions and/or directions, and if I like what I see...

Well. The sky's the limit, innit? :)

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Film Review | Valhalla Rising, dir. Nicholas Winding Refn

Movies are a lot like meals, if you think about it. Most will go in one end and - pardon me for saying so - out the other; these are sustenance of the basest variety. They keep you going, but the memory of them is never more than a trace, and not even that for long. However, there are also those films, and those foods, more about the art than the end result... those experiences which will remain with you for years to come, imprinted upon your memory like scars - fading with the passage of time, perhaps, but never to disappear entirely.

Valhalla Rising is an experience squarely of that latter variety, and it is powerful enough to leave a festering wound in its wake.

Shot entirely on location in Scotland - my own back yard at that! - Valhalla Rising is an elegaic chronicle of a quest for vengeance, and redemption. Danish writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn, whose oddball work on Bronson you will surely recall, bids us follow a mute warrior known only as One-Eye from a time spent in wretched captivity, through an escape aided by visions, and finally on a pilgrimage to the holy land. But when One-Eye arrives in the country his lurid dreams have heralded, he and the men who follow him - including Are, a boy slave of the same Norse chieftain who caged One-Eye for so long, and Kare, who hopes to see his dead sons again - they find not heaven, but hell.

Valhalla Rising is only loosely narrative-driven, and I dare say it is no more character-driven than that, though Mads Mikkelsen's bravura performance gives One-Eye an emotional arc of sorts. Rather, it's all about the land, and the life of the land; about a time and a place so forbidding that men and all they strive to do, and die for, are meaningless - so much miserable drizzle in the wind, which seems unceasing throughout Valhalla Rising.

Or perhaps not, for Refn's latest and surely greatest resists such pat understanding at almost every stage. What it is one moment is not at all what it is the next. It is, thus, a difficult film which demands a certain cerebral investment in order to appreciate on any level, but be sure your devotion will pay a handsome dividend when all is said and done.

Now I do not mean to suggest Valhalla Rising is devoid of action. Skulls are crushed, insides are aired out, and at least one head is detached from its traditional resting place and mounted on a pike. When the violence comes - in sudden, shattering bursts set to a spare soundtrack by PeterPeter and Peter Kyed momentarily swollen to an oppressive cacophony of churning - you will not mistake it, nor soon forget it.

Yet I cannot imagine action fans will come away from Valhalla Rising satisfied. Life for those folks One-Eye comes to blows with proves nasty, brutish and short, and the violence which inevitably results from these close encounters is not so much satisfying in itself as it is sickening. Add to that: there is no clear thread to grasp at in the intervening periods between one fight and another. As to how devotees of Refn's more visceral (and rather less artful) Pusher trilogy will react to this film, it's really anyone's guess.

And the hatchet swings both ways. Just as Valhalla Rising's transcendent tack is sure to dissuade one vast camp of viewers, so too will the occasional explosions of gruesome gore and industrial grinding offend such sensibilities as to inspire another - the arty and the farty - to prepare precious arguments about bad taste and the state of entertainment today.

Yet there will be those who can both stomach the sight of stomachs, and invest in the contemplative interim in the stirring sights and sounds of Scotland as was. Those folks - though there may only be a few of them - will come away from Valhalla Rising staggered, as I did, and single-handedly sold on anything Nicholas Winding Refn sets his sights on going forward, as I am.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Smash Hits | [Insert Skyrim Job Joke Here]

The BoSS is on vacation today. So.

You know, I don't buy terribly many video games. I mean, I play a whole lot of the things - I'd be the first to admit my eyes are sometimes bigger than my belly - but multiplayer modes rarely catch my eye, and £50 for a game that'll entertain me for a few evenings is a very hard sell.

Which is to say, the last video game I actually bought was Mass Effect 2. LoveFilm's kept me rolling in fun times on the 360 and PS3 since.

Anyway, if there was even a shadow of a shadow of a doubt that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim would be the game for which I break my long-standing buying fast, it's gone as of now. Because:

Cloth map! :D

Doesn't hurt that it's a cloth map for the hugely anticipated sequel to Oblivion, which given that I've yet to dare try my hand at an MMO must be the game have I've sunk the most hours into - ever. That I'd buy this beauty at some point was pretty much a gimme.

Then Bethseda announced a lovely burlap cloth map would be made available - for free! - to anyone and everyone who preorders Skyrim, whether from retailers in Europe or North America.

Here I'd been thinking I'd wait to see how the various console versions shook up in the final summation before I made a decision either way. (I mean, I'd like to get the Xbox 360 version, what with the points and all, but for a game of this sheer scale and scope, perhaps the PS3's extra storage will come in handy. Frankly I'd rather not have to worry about compressed textures and dodgy audio because of file format limitations - roll on the next generation already - but such is the gamer's life in this day and age.)

Well, I'd best pick one and be done with it, or no cloth map for me. Which I hardly need confess would make me a very sad Scotsman indeed...


Source: Kotaku

Friday, 24 June 2011

Coming Back to Comic Books | Red Sonja: Blue

If you've been reading Peter V. Brett's blog like a good fantasy fan, I expect you'll have heard more than enough about Red Sonja: Blue already - he's been talking about it since last April, after all - but bear with me: the story of how the author of The Painted Man and The Desert Spear made the leap from books to comics is actually pretty interesting.

And the resulting one-shot... well, it's pretty diverting too.

Originally intended to be a four-issue arc in the ongoing late last year, for some mysterious reason - publisher interference perhaps? - Brett's take on the one ginger warrior woman to rule them all was delayed, then disappeared, then condensed, eventually, into this single, supposedly "standalone" issue. All of which made me more than a little suspicious that there'd been fundamental problems behind the scenes.

Perhaps there were. Perhaps Dynamite were less than enthused that Brett meant to take Red Sonja out of her signature chain-mail bikini and drape something a little less demeaning around her ample bosoms. Because that's what Red Sonja: Blue is all about, truth be told: it's the story of how Conan's most attractive mate got herself a sweet new outfit.

And thank the lord for that, because - I'll be honest - the first half of Red Sonja: Blue was nearly enough to put me off the second. Assuredly, I have not come back to comic books in order to look at nearly nekkid ladies defy gravity above and below the belt.

Evidently Brett shares my concern, since in short order he has Red Sonja out with the old in favour of something new... not to mentioned borrowed, and blue. With her mighty endowments safely ensconced in a second-hand monster pelt, Brett even goes so far as to take a time out in order to suggest a neat rationale for her previous scanty cladding.

Thereafter, Red Sonja: Blue is business as usual. And that's no ill thing. Brett's love for the form is very much in evidence in this, his first comic book bow - though you wouldn't know it to read it. He doesn't, for instance, make that classic crossover novelist mistake of overloading panel after panel with exposition more suited to a book. Red Sonja: Blue talks the talk and walks the walk; it looks and reads and feels like a Red Sonja comic. And for what it is, it's pretty impressive.

Which is to say, standard heroic fantasy, cleavage meets cleaver: Red Sonja fights some monsters then takes a moment to bemoan her oath to never love a man unless he can best her in mortal combat, which of course no-one can.

And then it ends. Alas, it ends - just as Brett, having proved himself good and capable of scripting a solid sword and sorcery comic book, seems set to spread his wings, and let loose the dogs of The Demon Cycle. Shame, that.

I wouldn't have looked twice at Red Sonja: Blue were it not for Peter V. Brett's name on the title page, and in truth I wasn't immediately taken by it either - for one thing Walter Geovani's art, though perfectly competent, stresses all the wrong aspects of this brave new take on the character - but at the end of the day Brett demonstrates himself as sharp and witty a comic book writer as he is a novelist. And given the troubles this would-be four issue arc has had to overcome in the year it's been on the drawing board just to make it onto store shelves, that's really something.

Welcome to comic books, Peter V. Brett. I hope you stay a while.


By way of a brief postscript, I wanted to draw your attention to what could very well be the most offensive and/or hilarious (delete as appropriate) single panel I've seen since coming back to comic books:


A sequence made doubly ridiculous/brilliant because at the time of this writing I'd just seen an episode of South Park in which the art of queefing was once again discussed.

I'm sorry. I've really brought the tone down, haven't I? :P

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Coming Back to Comic Books | An Introduction

I used to read a lot of comics. I mean, a lot. The local comic book store guy would pull a precarious stack of singles from the racks for me every week, and every Thursday, without fail, I'd find myself practically penniless till the gods of pocket money - remember them? - next heard my prayers.

Then I grew up.

I hate to say it - I really, truly do - but I did. I got older; I got busier. I went to Uni; got a job; met the woman I aim to spend the rest of my life with, if she'll have me - not necessarily in that order. There are hundreds of things I could point to by way of explanation for my decision to leave behind a medium I'd held very dear. How I wish there was a single one that I could point to and say, "Of course! That's why I stopped reading comic books!"

But there's not. It just... kinda... happened.

I didn't go cold turkey, not quite. I read Lucifer and Y The Last Man through to the bitter end. I kept up with Fables for a while longer than anything else, and when everyone started exploding over The Walking Dead, I invested in the first few trades. There have been other odds and sods since, but not many, and less of them with every passing year.

But I never fell out of love with the medium completely. Though before this it'd been much too long since I devoured an issue of this or that ongoing, in all that time I'd have gladly mounted an argument in favour of comic books as an art form, and an equally viable means of mature storytelling as any novel or splodge of colour on a canvas - if someone had only asked.

Anyway, to make a long story less long, a little while ago I got myself a tablet, and quickly discovered the wonders of reading gloriously backlit graphic novels on my eee Pad Transformer. Marvel were (and still are) offering a free month's subscription to their Unlimited digital comics service, and though Marvel comics were never my particular poison, it was enough, in short, to get me to give a shit again. Since then, I've heaved the dusty longboxes out of storage... reread a few former favourites... I've even been back to the comic store! My old haunts are all gone, alas, but in their place others have risen - others, and the internet.

With which, the scene was set. I couldn't not blog about my experiences, now could I?

Coming Back to Comic Books is going to be a chronicle of my return journey into a medium much overlooked, and by me these past few years as much as anyone else. Going forward I mean to treat those comics I read with every inch of the respect I'd pay a given book, or movie.

Not to immediately contradict which statement, I have to admit that I don't know that there's enough meat in many single issues to justify individual reviews, but going forward, expect quick hits on anything and everything I read on a semi-regular basis, either grouped a couple at a time or covered 1:1 when the occasion calls for special treatment.

We're going to go in gently - as much for my own benefit as anyone else's - but already I've a backlog of comic books to talk about, and I'm rearing to get this show on the road before it gets as scary as my tower of regular books to be read.

Man oh man, what a lot of catching up I've got to do...

That is to say, man oh man, what a lot of catching up I've got to do! :D

Just to whet your appetite, over the next couple of weeks we're going to be talking about The Walking Dead - but of course we are! - as well as Batman: Hush, which I only just now read, and a couple of comics featuring scripts by writers we should all be familiar with, namely Strange Adventures, wherein Zoo City author Lauren Beukes makes her mark on a new medium, and Peter V. Brett's much ballyhooed-about Red Sonja: Blue, which I might as well tell you now would be better known as The Book of Breasts.

Exciting, right? And no, I don't just mean that last.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Book Review | Queen of Kings by Maria Dahvana Headley

Buy this book from

What if Cleopatra didn’t die in 30 BC alongside her beloved Mark Antony? What if she couldn’t die? What if she became... immortal?

As Octavian Caesar (later Augustus) and his legions march into Alexandria, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, summons Sekhmet, the goddess of Death and Destruction, in a desperate attempt to resurrect her husband, who has died by his own hand, and save her kingdom. But this deity demands something in return: Cleopatra's soul. Against her will, Egypt's queen becomes a blood-craving, shape-shifting immortal: a not-quite-human manifestation of a goddess who seeks to destroy the world. Battling to preserve something of her humanity, Cleopatra pursues Octavian back to Rome - she desires revenge, she yearns for her children - and she craves blood...

It is a dangerous journey she must make. She will confront witches, mythic monsters, the gods of ancient Greece and Rome, and her own, warring nature. She will kill but she will also find mercy. She will raise an extraordinary army to fight her enemies, and she will see her beloved Antony again. But to save him from the endless torment of Hades, she must make a devastating sacrifice.


"Once, there was a queen of Egypt... a queen who became through magic something else." (p.219) The queen - the Queen of Kings - is Cleopatra, of course. Her from the history books. And the something else? 

Why, it's funny you should ask. Cleopatra becomes... a vampire!

Well, sure she does. Don't tell me you were thinking she'd get her mummy on. Imagine: a cinnamon-scented corpse, swathed in toilet paper and slowly crisping. That's just not very sexy, now is it? And Maria Dahvana Headley's second novel after The Year of Yes is very sexy. It is also - and this last might surprise - superb. Spellbinding, even.

In its first phase, the events of Queen of Kings go much as records suggest. Around 30 years before Christ arrived to put a spanner in the works the world over, Cleopatra is ruler of an Egypt under siege by the mean old Romans, led by Octavian (later Augustus) Caesar himself. When she loses her beloved, Marc Antony, Cleopatra can bear life no longer, and commits ritual suicide, inducing an asp - or a cobra - to bite her breast... or somewhere else.

Here, needless to say, the historical accounts begin to differ. And here, too, is where Queen of Kings diverges from the facts, such as they are, of Cleopatra's rise and subsequent fall, for in Headley's novel - apparently the first in an epoch-spanning saga - the queen of Egypt does not die at all. Instead, tormented by the loss of her one true love, or else - depending on who you ask - "broken by her hunger for power, and by her desire to be the queen of more than her own country," (p.241) she summons the goddess Sekhmet, who rises from Hades to inhabit her.

What follows, as Cleopatra comes to terms with an unspeakable lust for blood, and the state of her soul if soul she still has, is a supremely satisfying hybrid of historical fiction and dark, deeply sensual fantasy sure to seduce all comers this Summer. Possessed of a hunger for vengeance only inflamed by the insatiable wrath of the warrior goddess in her heart, Cleopatra is become a "tear in the tapestry of the fates" (p.293) which in Octavian's pitiful wake rends a bloody swathe across Egypt, then through Rome, and thereafter... the world.

"With every move, she lacerated skin and wounded innocent victims, without conscience, without care. Nowhere in the stories, nowhere in the histories, was there anything comparable." (p.272)

Well, perhaps not in the stories of Cleopatra's era, or the histories, but in ours, there are comparable narratives to that set out in Queen of Kings, and no shortage thereof; see the hot vampire heroine of any one of a vast selection of contemporary paranormal romances seducing her way to victory or vengeance.

However, Headley's novel is not so straightforward, nor so single-minded. For one thing, the reader is not always in Cleopatra's pocket as Queen of Kings powers on, ever onward: though she is certainly the star of the show - her perspective is paramount - from the outset we also watch the legendary Egyptian from eyes other than her own. We are with Antony when Octavian sends a false messenger to cheat the Roman's fate, and with the weaksauce Caesar when he discovers, to his horror, her tomb empty and despoiled. When a terrible Cleopatra comes a-calling to collect on Octavian's mortal debt, our point of view is with him and the three witches he has enlisted in his defence, as much or more than it is with the resurrected queen.

Some advance reviews have criticised Queen of Kings for its variety of perspectives. I would counter that without them - if Headley had us spend the whole novel in Cleopatra's company - there would be no moral ambiguity to her, no mystery, as there is: only wickedness. Without Octavian and Antony, the queen's daughter Seline and the scholar Nicolaus, we would know Cleopatra, when in practice her unknowableness is among her most effective character traits.

So too does the author treat Cleopatra's curse with more delicacy than I'd anticipated. Her affliction is rather more complex than simply: she's a sexy vampire, so there. Instead, she is a creature "dead and yet not dead," (p.103) violated by her own hand and robbed of children she never cared much for in the first place. Though I'm afraid she does, in what is surely Queen of Kings' weakest section, go through the usual vampire rigmarole, wherein "She must learn what she was. She must understand how to control [her power]. She could not afford to surrender completely, to lose herself in the hunger and fury." (p.128) That done - or not; I ain't saying - Queen of Kings pounces on towards its denouement, and I for one was with it all the way to the bitter end.

There are moments in Queen of Kings where it seems situations are complicated for the sake of complicating situations, and a few broad strokes where the characterisation does suffer, but this is fantasy with a swish of alt. history, and as such, it astonishes. As one of the witches - Chrysate - admits, "beauty was a tremendous part of her currency," (p.310) and much the same could and should be said for Maria Dahvana Headley's genre debut. It is well structured, wonderfully judged and lavishly crafted.

Queen of Kings is, in short, a much better and more beautiful book than perhaps it sounds. Read it. Weep, even.


Queen of Kings
by Maria Dahvana Headley

UK Publication: July 2011, Bantam Press
US Publication: May 2011, Dutton Adult

Buy this book from

Recommended and Related Reading

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Quoth the Scotsman | Daniel Polansky on Decisions

A couple of caveats to bear in mind before we start. Unless otherwise indicated, none of the quotes quoted in the following article are representative of the beliefs of the person in question quoted nor those the person quoting the person in question. Additionally, any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental... or so I'm saying.

In short, Quoth the Scotsman is just a space here on TSS for me to post neat quotes as and when I come across them. Simple. As. That.


There's a great deal more than a good read riding on the success, or not, of The Straight Razor Cure - that is to say Low Town, if you're in the States. If it's well received, The Straight Razor Cure will of course serve to launch the career of one Daniel Polansky: a young American author, and a rather talented fellow by my estimation.

Moreover, however, here in the UK Polansky's debut is being positioned as "the launch title of Hodder's revitalised science fiction and fantasy list," so it follows that the publishers aforementioned will be paying close attention to its reception - both by critics and by the book-buying public at large - in the months to come. Whichever way you cut the mustard, a substantial new market for genre authors and a new avenue of speculative entertainment for readers so inclined would be Very Good Thing.

So I'm hoping The Straight Razor Cure does well. Exceedingly well, even - like a good cake. Thus it was with some trepidation that I heard rumblings about the blogosphere that Polansky's novel wasn't all it could have been.

Well, truth be told, what is?

As of the time of this writing I'm about two thirds through The Straight Razor Cureand if I'm not yet ready to champion Polansky as among the year's most exciting arrivals, that's in large part because I'm wary of making such claims without all the facts in hand. That said, I'm optimistic; it's made for pretty damn fine reading so far. Think the bastard offspring of Mark Charan Newton and Scott Lynch...

Not to give too much away, but I suppose you could say the following exchange - cod-philosophical and winningly self-aware - spoke to me. So I thought I'd do the decent thing and share:

"It's strange, the paths a man finds himself on. In the storybooks everyone's granted some critical moment, when the road forks and your options are laid out clear in front of you: heroism or villainy. But it's not like that, is it? Decisions follow decisions, each minor in and of itself, made in the heat of the moment or on the dregs of instinct. Then one day you look up and realise that you're stuck, that every muttered answer is a bar in the cage you've built, and the momentum of each choice moves you forward as inexorable as the will of the Firstborn."
"Eloquent, but untrue. I made a decision, once. If the consequences were worse than I had anticipated... that's because it was a bad decision."
"But that's my point, you see. How can you know which choices matter and which choices don't? There are decisions I have made that I regret, that were - that were not who I am. There are decisions I would unmake, were it possible to do so."

Decisions, right? Who would have 'em! :)

The Straight Razor Cure will be published by Hodder in the UK on August 18th. Doubleday, meanwhile, will have Low Town out the door a couple of days earlier in the States, albeit bearing - I think we can all agree - a rather less interesting title.

Expect a full review to hit The Speculative Scotsman well before either date.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Video Game Review | Outland, dev. Housemarque

The platform exclusive seems a dying breed in video games these days, and in all honesty, I couldn't have hoped for a happier circumstance.

Obviously exceptions can and will continue to be made for those tentpole products developed by the primary parties in play, which is to say the platform standard-bearers of Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony. Perhaps in fan-fiction the day will come when Mario ground-pounds Master Chief, only for Kratos to quarter the poor plump plumber in a shocking Shyamalan twist. In the gaming industry of today, alas: you might as well waste your time ruminating on the dreamy ideal of a one console future.

By and large, then, the notion that you'd spend the fortune required to design the high-def friendly assets today's technological architecture insists on, and then develop an engine up to the daunting task of streaming them, only to skip that last short step - the porting of your blood, sweat and tears from one platform to another, and therefore to a whole other base of players - quite beggars belief.

That assertion holds true particularly in the case of your smaller developers. Take, for instance, Housemarque, who made their name in the contemporary climate with Super Stardust HD - a wonderfully reworked version of the same studio's Amiga 1200 favourite - for the PS3.

Super Stardust HD was a tremendous success: one of the first and still among the most powerful reasons to hook your big black media centre up to the Playstation Network - however foolish that resolution might seem in light of recent events. Yet Housemarque's long-awaited PSN successor was a disaster, relatively speaking. Hell, the dreary Left 4 Overhead shenanigans of last year's Dead Nation were disastrous by all accounts.

Yet somehow, Housemarque pulled through; pulled through long enough, at least, to ditch the twin-stick shooter mechanics of old so that they might twist together the platforming of Prince of Persia with bullet-hell environs ripped right out of Ikaruga. And thank the great console overlords they did, because Outland... is an absolute delight.

There's a story and everything... something to do with a hero of ages and twin sisters, as I recall. Sounds dirty filthy nasty, right? It's not. And let's not you and I worry about that, in any event - largely because to speak on it much further I'd have to ask Wiki what in the world just happened, and this having just finished the game. Not exactly a strong sign, but in all honesty: what of it? Narrative is not the reason why I'd urge you to purchase and play Outland.

But be sure, those reasons are legion. Foremost amongst them - and surely the first thing about Outland likely to strike you - is the exquisite aesthetic. Seemingly inspired by the handheld wormholes of Portal 2, the twenty-some 2D levels of Outland are brought vividly to life by a palette of bright blues and oscillating oranges. Each of the five Metroidvania-esque worlds you adventure through has its own unique twist on the general look, all of which awe in their way. Housemarque have truly brought their A-game to Outland; in design terms at least.

And the visual design very much informs the gameplay design. Outland seems somewhat simplistic at the outset: you'll be clambering up ledges and wall-jumping quite the thing within minutes of beginning. But the more you explore, the more abilities you unlock. A ground pound a la the aforementioned Italian lets you break through certain floor areas, and a dash achieves the same purpose with walls. With one power you're able to gather up all the blue and orange bullets on the screen - and there are almost always bullets on the screen - and make of them a defensive shield, or an offensive explosion; while with another ability you can teleport back to old haunts to make use of the previously inaccessible jump pads scattered here and there through the multitude levels - perhaps to find one last collectible, of which there are a fair few.

The one power to rule them all, however, and the ability around which a great deal of Outland is structured, is phase shifting. When you're blue, you can absorb blue bullets, and do damage to orange enemies through the neat, if underutilised combo system, but hit the bumper to change states, and everything in this wonderful world shifts with you: now you can absorb orange bullets without taking a hit, and layeth the smack down on blue baddies. It begins an uncomplicated thing, this game, yet a few levels in you're required to shift from blue to orange and back again in the space of a single jump before you can progress any further, and later on you'll be picking a considered path through bullet fountains of both colours.

From the outside I would wager phase shifting must sound terribly demanding, and at times, indeed, it is. But the difficulty curve of Outland slopes just so over its approximately six hour course. You'll rarely feel either overprepared or underprepared for the next impossible feat Housemarque demands of you - that is short a couple of desperately frustrating boss battles as you approach the endgame. And on those occasions, I'd hold some mean-spirited checkpointing accountable for the imbalance, rather than suggest the level of challenge rises too sharply.

Other than that, the only charge I'd level at this gem of a genre-bender is... well, perhaps there's a touch too much of it, for Outland seems to run out of steam some before it's over. Particularly in the last of its five worlds, after one final power has been bestowed upon our hero of ages, precious few surprises remain. Better that the experience had ended full steam ahead than petering as it does towards what is an appropriately apocalyptic conclusion.

It is an easy thing to trace various aspects of Outland back towards the respective origins of each: there's a great swathe of Ikaruga in the polarity of your player character, and the billowing curtains of bullets you encounter every which way, and a fair whack of Super Metroid in the way the world is organised to encourage return trips once you've become more powerful. There's some Ico to the stark aesthetic, and a sliver of Limbo while we're at it. Prince of Persia rules the platforming mechanics, for the most part, though there is too an echo of the pulse-pounding chases of Super Meat Boy and 'Splosion Man, and a heartening memory of Shadow of the Colossus about certain boss battles. But for all that Outland seems a sauté of overfamiliar ingredients going for a penny on the pound, what emerges from the mill is in its own right a memorable dish indeed, fully - and beautifully - formed.

Thank to Housemarque's multiplatform-friendly change of heart, you can purchase Outland for a measly sum on Xbox Live Arcade or the Playstation Network. Released as it was to little or no fanfare, and received with a dreadful dearth standing in for the fervour it deserves, I dearly hope you do so, for I'd hate for Outland to be Housemarque's swan song.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Books Received | The BoSS for 19/06/11

Met the old BoSS? Well, let me introduce you to the new BoSS - same as the old BoSS, more or less... except less is more. That's my story and I'm sticking to it!

All caught up? Good. Let's get on with it, then.

Three of the five books I want to talk about this week share a certain... maturity, shall we say? Not that there's a one of them old by any stretch - except perhaps the Pike - but in the book business you're either on the shelves or you're not. And I bet you'd have a tough time finding a few of these beauties in Waterstones.

But hold up a moment: does Waterstones even exist any more? Moreover, has the measure of new and ld changed forever, now that Amazon exists?


The Concrete Grove
by Gary McMahon

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 07/07/11
by Solaris

Review Priority
4 (Pretty Bloody Likely)

The Blurb: Imagine a place where all your nightmares become real. Think of dark urban streets where crime, debt and violence are not the only things to fear. Picture a housing project that is a gateway to somewhere else, a realm where ghosts and monsters stir hungrily in the shadows. Welcome to the Concrete Grove. It knows where you live...

Gary McMahon's chilling horror trilogy shows us a Britain many of us will recognise, while whispering of the terrible and arcane presences clawing against the boundaries of our reality!

A Scotsman's Thoughts: Mmm. So a bit Kraken, then, minus the actual Kraken?

Well, you know, that sounds just dandy by me. I'm totally in the mood for some solid urban fantasy - it's been too long! In addition to which, The Concrete Grove sounds embellished with elements of crime and horror, so wham, bam, thank you ma'am: this one can have an evening in the not-too-distant to win me over. Here's hoping it does.

The Departure
by Neal Asher

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 05/09/11
by Tor

Review Priority
3 (We'll See)

The Blurb: Visible in the night sky the Argus Station, its twin smelting plants like glowing eyes, looks down on nightmare Earth. From Argus the Committee keep an oppressive control: citizens are watched by cams systems and political officers, it's a world inhabited by shepherds, reader guns, razor birds and the brutal Inspectorate with its white tiled cells and pain inducers.

Soon the Committee will have the power to edit human minds, but not yet, twelve billion human being need to die before Earth can be stabilized, but by turning large portions of Earth into concentration camps this is achievable, especially when the Argus satellite laser network comes fully online.

This is the world Alan Saul wakes to in his crate on the conveyor to the Calais incinerator. How he got there he does not know, but he does remember the pain and the face of his interrogator. Informed by Janus, through the hardware implanted in his skull, about the world as it is now Saul is determined to destroy it, just as soon as he has found out who he was, and killed his interrogator...

A Scotsman's Thoughts: Neal Asher's political views are not Neal Asher's novels. Climate change is happening whether or not the man lives in denial of that fact. I need to remember that. But we've been over this before: I can't help but rebel at the idea of publicly supporting the work of a man who espouses such views, and by extension the man behind the work.

Nevertheless, The Departure sounds like a sterling jumping on point for all those who've wondered about The Polity novels in the past - as, I confess, I have. It's the beginning of a whole new sub-set of the series, you see, and I can't say I'm completely disinterested in it myself. Maybe I just need to get over myself, and get reading.

Maybe I just will...

Bitter Seeds
by Ian Tregillis

Vital Statistics
Published in the US
on 13/04/10
by Tor

Review Priority
5 (A Sure Thing)

The Blurb: It's 1939. The Nazis have supermen, the British have demons, and one perfectly normal man gets caught in between

Raybould Marsh is a British secret agent in the early days of the Second World War, haunted by something strange he saw on a mission during the Spanish Civil War: a German woman with wires going into her head who looked at him as if she knew him.

When the Nazis start running missions with people who have unnatural abilities—a woman who can turn invisible, a man who can walk through walls, and the woman Marsh saw in Spain who can use her knowledge of the future to twist the present—Marsh is the man who has to face them. He rallies the secret warlocks of Britain to hold the impending invasion at bay. But magic always exacts a price. Eventually, the sacrifice necessary to defeat the enemy will be as terrible as outright loss would be.

Alan Furst meets Alan Moore in the opening of an epic of supernatural alternate history, the tale of a twentieth century like ours and also profoundly different.

A Scotsman's Thoughts: Wait, what? Did someone say Alan Moore? Where?! Where is he?

Well there's a sure-fire way to sell me on a novel, right there.

Indeed, from the blurb, and not a few of the reviews I've read, Bitter Seeds does sound like it's got a couple of things in common with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Whether it ends up here on The Speculative Scotsman or elsewhere, I'll plum guarantee you a review of Ian Tregillis' novel sometime soon. And not just because the blurb mentioned the bearded one.

No, I mean the original bearded one. Not that nouveau fellow.

The Deserter
by Celia Friedman

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 07/02/08
by Orbit

Review Priority
4 (Pretty Bloody Likely)

The Blurb: In the High Kingdom of Danton Aurelius, magisters from across the known world are gathering for an unusual meeting. The High King's son is dying of an apparently incurable wasting disease, and he has charged them with providing an explanation and a cure. There is a mystery here, but not the one the High King thinks: the magisters know the cause of the prince's illness but they dare not reveal it for fear that it will expose the secret at the heart of their order. No, the mystery is not what is responsible, but who...

Now the magisters must embark upon a manhunt, racing against time, before the High King learns the truth. But they have not counted on the young prince's determination to control his own fate, nor on the existence of Kamala, a young woman schooled in their own arts, who will soon shake the world to its very roots.

A Scotsman's Thoughts: Well what do you know, it's another oldie!

It's an embarrassing story, actually - how I came into possession of Feast of Souls. It took me more than a year before the penny finally dropped, but when I realised the C. S. Friedman Pat goes on about from time to time on the dreaded Hotlist was one and the same as the Celia Friedman Orbit publishes here in the UK, I didn't hesitate a second. I've have my differences with Pat - and rest assured, I'll continue to have them - but he really does adore these otherwise unknown novels... and the Canuck's not always wrong.

Right? ;)

by Christopher Pike

Vital Statistics
Published in the US
on 29/03/11
by Tor

Review Priority
3 (We'll See)

The Blurb: I once knew this girl who thought she was God. She didn’t give sight to the blind or raise the dead. She didn’t even teach anything, not really, and she never told me anything I probably didn’t already know.

On the other hand, she didn’t expect to be worshipped, nor did she ask for money. Given her high opinion of herself, some might call that a miracle.

I don’t know, maybe she was God. Her name was Sati and she had blonde hair and blue eyes...

A Scotsman's Thoughts: Once upon a time, I read a whole lot of Christopher Pike...

In all honestly I don't remember much about those days, and those early, perhaps even formative reading experiences. But I was totally into Chain Letter, suffice it to say. Weren't we all? Oh, say it ain't so, internet!

Anyway, it was with a confusion of nostalgia and trepidation that I received review copies of Tor's recent reissues of both Sati and The Season of Passage, neither of which I recall reading back in my own personal medieval era - though that isn't to say I haven't read them. Sati, at least, sounds somewhat familiar. And while Graeme's opinion of it doesn't exactly fill me full of hope, reading some Christopher Pike as a Mister rather than the Master I once was (oh the days!) should make for an... an interesting exercise, one way or the other.


So what will I be reading this week?

You know, for once... I haven't the foggiest. I could start in on the C. S. Friedman, or the Christopher Pike - or else there's Bitter Seeds and The Concrete GroveChrist, I could even give The Departure a shot, just to see. There's no clear winner this week.

Here, why don't you guys chime inFrom amongst the books run-down in this week's edition of The BoSS, let me know which you'd like to see reviewed first. Go on: help make my decisions for me! :D