Thursday, 31 May 2012

Meme, Myself and I | All About the Books

Timely as ever, I picked up this age-old meme from the Strange Chemistry blog, where Amanda has been having the new imprint's authors answer a couple bookish questions to give her readers a better sense of her writers.

From whence it came originally... I haven't the foggiest. Sorry!

***

1) One Book That Changed My Life

As tempted as I am to say The Scar by China Mieville, because it was the book that finally sold me on speculative fiction, or latterly Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay, because it, in turn, was the on that I had to start a blog to talk about... no. These are the answers you'd expect if you've been reading The Speculative Scotsman for any length of time; they would expose nothing new about who I am or what made me me, and if memes like this have a saving grace, it's that.

So I'm going to go back a bit further. 

I'm going to go all the way back, in fact, to a book that my Mum read aloud to me, chapter by chapter, for a period of some months when I was very, very young. When she'd finished it, I went right back to the start on my lonesome. The Neverending Story by Michael Ende didn't strictly speaking teach me how to read, but I don't doubt that it helped; it was the first book I read that I didn't think was for kids. Whether in retrospect it was or was not, at the time my kiddie mind assumed length meant maturity, and The Neverending Story was certainly long.

I have had occasion to wonder how different my taste in fiction as an adult might have been had I only read something else as an innocent...

2) One Book I’ve Had to Read More Than Once

I very rarely do this. Really, very rarely. Does that make me an odd duck?

But there have been a few books I've returned to. Always after some serious time has passed since I read them last. There's The Gunslinger by Stephen King, AKA book one of The Dark Tower, and still the best in the series, for my money. There's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. There's the first volume of The Long Price by Daniel Abraham, A Shadow in Summer, which I had to read a second time - rather recently, at that - because upon starting A Betrayal in Winter I realised I'd forgotten the detail that I'd loved about the book before it. There's The Terror by Dan Simmons. Silk by Caitlin R. Kiernan.

I'm sure there have been others, but truth be told, they're few and far between. There's always so much that I haven't yet read to read, you know?

Anyway, you only asked for one book, so count yourself lucky, master of memes.

3) One Book I’d Want on a Desert Island

I'd want something very long, obviously. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson comes to mind, or The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. Perhaps The Stand? Classic King; now that I'd read again in a heartbeat, if I only had a month to myself with no other obligations.

4) One Book That Made me Laugh 

Hmm.

Let me think about this one and get back to you in a bit.

5) One Book That Made me Cry

An easy one, this: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. When the identity of The Fool was revealed in the last chapter, in case you were wondering.

Nothing since has moved me to tears, but before Tigana - which is to say when I was an easier reader to manipulate emotionally - there were a fair few. Truly great stories have spoiled me in that sense.

6) One Book I Wish I’d Written

All the books? 

Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear most lately. Anything exceptionally pretty prose-wise makes my creative instincts envious.

7) One Book I Am Currently Reading

At this very second I'm in the middle of Last Days by Adam Nevill, in whose acknowledgements (which for some reason I always read) I was over the moon to see The Speculative Scotsman. Yay! It's been really creepy, incidentally. Maybe a bit bloated, but still more gripping, I think, than anything Nevill's written before. Stay tuned for the full review... soon.

Next up on my reading agenda: one of the Strange Chemistry proofs that came in the mail last week, I should think. Least I can do for stealing the meme Amanda brought back from the great graveyard in the ether. :)

8) One Book I Am Looking Forward To

What, just the one?

I'm sorry, but no. I can't. Just in the next couple of months, there's Sharps by K. J. Parker, and The Prince of Heaven - the sequel to The Shadow of the Wind, by the sounds of it - by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. And oh! It wouldn't do to forget Caliban's War by James S. A. Corey.


Beyond that, the list gets a lot longer.

4) One Book That Made me Laugh

Right. Now that I've had a think about this one, I have an answer. But on reflection, I don't think I read a great many authors who go out of their way to split sides, as it were. That sort of description puts me right off, in fact. Thus: I don't read Terry Pratchett, or Tom Holt, or Robert Rankin. The closest I can remember coming to that sort of thing are the Ben Aaronovitch books.

But one novel above all others in recent memory has made me laugh. That'd be Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde. There's one line in particular, about a typo which led to generations of children being given a smack before bed instead of a snack that cracks me up just thinking about it. Even besides its sense of humour, Shades of Grey is a truly brilliant book from start to finish - give me Painting By Numbers now, please! - and any excuse to recommend it is a good one by me.

***

By the dead, it's been ages since I did something along these lines. A meme. I forget why I stopped. Oversaturation? Boredom? Whatever the reason, it's been fun, this one... this once.

You tell me, dear readers. Going forward, would you want more of this sort of thing on The Speculative Scotsman, or even less?

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Book Review | 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson


The year is 2312. Scientific and technological advances have opened gateways to an extraordinary future. Earth is no longer humanity's only home; new habitats have been created throughout the solar system on moons, planets, and in between. But in this year, 2312, a sequence of events will force humanity to confront its past, its present, and its future.

The first event takes place on Mercury, on the city of Terminator, itself a miracle of engineering on an unprecedented scale. It is an unexpected death, but one that might have been foreseen. For Swan Er Hong, it is an event that will change her life. Swan was once a woman who designed worlds. Now she will be led into a plot to destroy them.


***

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away - or so it feels, at least - I read Red Mars. I was at an age and a stage that demanded I discover those things that I'd love for the rest of my life: not the perfunctory pleasures I'd inherited from my parents, nor the playthings of my peers, but passions of my own devising. Thus, I invested in an alarming amount of classic sf and fantasy. Decades if not centuries of masterworks were mine in one fell swoop, and amongst them, the most celebrated of all Kim Stanley Robinson's novels.

I adored it, of course. Then as now. I'd never read such a meticulous and convincing future history, and Mars, though far-fetched yet, was not such an unknown quantity as to overstretch my limited imagination. By that same token, a lot of Red Mars went right over my head - not least the fact that it was book one of three - so it's been an occasional aspiration of mine to re-read it ever since, in quick succession with its acclaimed sequels, Blue Mars and Green Mars.

Alas, as is often the way with aspirations, it hasn't happened yet... though I have returned to Robinson's work in the succeeding years. Galileo's Dream was not for me, I fear, but I had a terrific time with the best of collection Night Shade Books put out in late 2010, such that I've been eagerly anticipating 2312 for, ahem, many a moon.

It does not disappoint.
"Really you have no idea. It's like nothing you've ever seen. You may think you are inured, that nothing outside the mind can really interest you anymore, as sophisticated and knowledgeable as you are. But you would be wrong. You are a creature of the sun. The beauty and terror of it seen from so close can empty any mind, thrust anyone into a trance. [...] The sight of it can strike thought clean out of your head. People seek it out precisely for that." (pp.3-4)
Three centuries on from the present day, everything has changed. Everything, that is, except Earth. Humanity has taken to the stars; spacers have radically overhauled the solar system; millions of people have been born and raised on Venus and Mars and Mercury, meanwhile countless thousands of terraformed asteroids - which is to say terraria - are now home to Earth's surviving flora and fauna. Longevity treatments have raised life expectancy amongst those who can afford the intervention into the high hundreds, and gender, in the future, is a thing of the past.

Advances along these lines are made every day - exponential progress is the name of the game - yet humanity's pitiable point of origin is in dire crisis, as ever.
"It was almost an ice-free planet now, with only Antarctica and Greenland holding on to much, and Greenland going fast. Sea level was therefore eleven meters higher than it had been before the changes. This inundation of the coastline was one of the main drivers of the human disaster on Earth. They had immensely powerful terraforming techniques off-planet, but here they usually couldn't be applied. No slamming comets into it, for instance." (p.90)
For obvious reasons.

In short, "Earth was a mess, a sad place. And yet still the center of the story. It had to be dealt with, as Alex had always said, or nothing done in space was real." (ibid) Alex, incidentally, is the self-styled Lion of Mercury, a scientist and a significant political figure whose sudden death - supposedly from natural causes - sets off 2312. In the bravura prologue - a short but stunning sunwalk that serves to set the surreal scene ideally, as well as one's expectations - Robinson introduces us to Alex's daughter, Swan Er Hong, as she navigates her planet's scorched surface in an attempt to get to grips with the unbearable grief she feels. Some distance away from the relative safety of Terminator, Mercury's sole city - an awesome industrial colony that circles the world a scant step ahead of the world's own orbit, and thus the sun, which burns hot enough here that it might melt a person (indeed a place) - Swan considers suicide, for a second, or seems to.

Her impetuousness will be the death of her, one suspects. If not now then not long from. She's a spacer, born and raised, and though she's more than a century old, as often as not she behaves like an entitled child. Swan huffs and sulks, pouts and shouts. Not unrelatedly, she's an artist. An aesthetic activist in full-fledged rebellion against the abstract of the establishment. To which end she's eaten aliens, and had bird-brains installed in her head - as you do - as well as a snarky quantum computer called Pauline whom readers of Red Mars may well recognise.

In terms of her character arc through 2312, however, the single biggest obstacle opposite Swan - at least when we meet - is that she has no sense of purpose, or of place. But Alex's death gives her a glimpse of these things, tantalising if not yet terrifying: Alex's last request is that Swan personally ferry some encoded information to those who need to know it. Thus, our odd duck comes into contact with Alex's cultish cadre, who (as it happens) have been working to disrupt the dithering establishment on Earth themselves. Almost as if it were meant to be, Swan finds herself falling in with one of her dearly departed's closest confidantes: Fitz Wahram, out of Titan. He is "a very big man. Prognathous, callipygous, steatopygous, exophthalmos - toad, newt, frog - even the very words were ugly. [...] Once she had seen a toad in an amazonia, sitting at the edge of a pond, its warty wet skin all bronze and gold. She had liked the look of it." (p.15)

So it is that the scene is set for revolution, and perhaps a strange strain of romance.

Thereafter, 2312 gets quite complicated quite quickly:
"By the early twenty-fourth century there was too much going on to be either seen or understood. Assiduous attempts by contemporary historians to achieve an agreed-upon paradigm foundered, and we are no different now, looking back at them. It's hard even to assemble enough data to make a guess. There were thousands of city-states out there pinballing around, each with its presence in the data cloud or absence from same, and all of them adding up to—what? To the same mishmash history has been all along, but now elaborated, mathmaticized, effloresced—in the word of the time, balkanized." (p.78)
To paraphrase our occasional, omniscient narrator: to simplify history would be to distort Robinson's reality, and this award-winning author does not dilute. It is, therefore, a bold-type testament to his unflinching grasp of the narrative art that one understands as much of the plot, and indeed its byzantine backdrop, as one should, or is supposed to. Wisely, I think, Robinson draws a hard line between the involved scientific speculation readers have come to expect from his work and the actual unfolding of the tale he's here to tell; that of - at long last - the end of the world as we know it, if not the apocalypse proper.

To wit, Robinson builds his single sprawling setting, and gestures toward the million (give or take) meticulously researched ideas underpinning it, in excerpts, as in in the extract above. In extracts - of which there are eighteen - in addition to fifteen lengthy lists, a miscellany of individually titled segments, ten strong, on top of a prologue, an epilogue, and forty-odd actual chapters. 2312 is a big book punctuated, and so forth made manageable, by lots of itty bits. Asides, mostly: postcards from the far-distant future, or the diary entries of an unfathomable AI.

This tension in the structure of 2312, between the little and the large, reflects the relationship between the planet-cracking happenings and the seemingly insignificant events that Robinson is interested in for the bulk of the book. The reader is routinely shuttled between stunning set-pieces, like the sunwalk with which the whole thing begins, or the destruction of Terminator - Swan's sweet home if she has one - and quiet, composed, character-oriented moments, such as the prolonged underground walkabout our scattershot protagonist shares with Wahram, or the stop-overs she takes on various terraria.

You will come to look upon all these moments equally. In astonishment, in awe, at both the small, and the immense. Such is Robinson's success in terms of the sense-of-wonder 2312 evokes, like a sky full of stars exploding one after the other, over and over again.

Given all its ideas, not to speak of the myriad intricacies of each of these, I dare say 2312 is a substantially more accessible novel than it has any right to be. The author's decision to delineate his science from his fiction pays dividends in that respect, as it allows each scene to breathe, and more often than not to blossom. Furthermore, Robinson presents many of most complex concepts with a winning amount of whimsy. As recipes, among other things. For a successful revolution, for instance, Swan's qube would have us
"Take large masses of injustice, resentment, and frustration. Put them in a weak or failing hegemon. Stir in misery for a generation or two, until the heat rises. Throw in destabilizing circumstances to taste. A tiny pinch of event to catalyze the whole. Once the main goal of the revolution is achieved, cool instantly to institutionalize the new order." (p.334)
There's fun in 2312, then. Fun, and unbelievable wonder; love, profundity and a lot of legitimately gripping drama. Also some startling ideas. I had not dared to dream that Kim Stanley Robinson could even equal Red Mars, but in time, 2312 could take the cake. That and biscuit-based relativity aside, it's a magnificent sweet treat in its own right. Robinson is as intelligent and compelling as ever he has been - at least in my experience - but herein he has tempered his the science of his fiction smartly, if not sensitively. The result, simply put, is stunning.

Never mind the usual genre divisions: 2312 is easily one of the year's best books, period.

***

2312
by Kim Stanley Robinson

UK & US Publication: May 2012, Orbit


Recommended and Related Reading

Monday, 28 May 2012

I Tube | Kara: A Quantic Dream


Just so you know, this news is not news. It's months and months old - from way back when in March 2012 - but until very recently, I'd managed to completely miss it. Maybe you had too.

I suppose the reason I overlooked it initially was a case of crossed wires. After all, Kara purports to be a tech demo from the team at Quantic Dream — who developed Heavy Rain, one of my favourite games in recent memory. But be that as it may, I've been burned by tech demos often enough that I've taught myself to turn the other cheek when they appear... even when they come from top-notch developers, as in this case.

Kara, however, is as much a movie as it is a tech demo. A short movie, admittedly. That the whole thing's running in real-time on a PS3 is impressive, certainly, but come to Kara for the title character and the heartbreaking narrative rather than some aspirational demonstration of the quality of tomorrow's graphics or performance capture.

Kara put me in mind of nothing so much as The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang, which I reviewed here on The Speculative Scotsman a year or so ago. Set seven minutes of your grind aside and you'll surely see why:


To my mind, this so-called tech demo attests to the storytelling prowess of the creative leads at Quantic Dream at least as much as it does the engine they're building their next game with... whatever it is.

Tell you what, though... after Heavy Rain, and this minor magnificence, I have my fingers firmly crossed we'll hear more about the team's next project in a few short weeks at E3.

Which reminds me: what are you hoping to see revealed at this year's expo?

Give me Bioshock: Infinite, Half-Life 3, GTA5 and a bit of Bungie's next project, and I'll come home a happy camper.

Remember, I tube so you don't have to!

Friday, 25 May 2012

Book Review | Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards


Many tales are told of the Syldoon Empire and its fearsome soldiers, who are known throughout the world for their treachery and atrocities. Some say that the Syldoon eat virgins and babies-or perhaps their own mothers. Arkamondos, a bookish young scribe, suspects that the Syldoon's dire reputation may have grown in the retelling, but he's about to find out for himself.

Hired to chronicle the exploits of a band of rugged Syldoon warriors, Arki finds himself both frightened and fascinated by the men's enigmatic leader, Captain Braylar Killcoin. A secretive, mercurial figure haunted by the memories of those he's killed with his deadly flail, Braylar has already disposed of at least one impertinent scribe... and Arki might be next. Archiving the mundane doings of millers and merchants was tedious, but at least it was safe.

As Arki heads off on a mysterious mission into parts unknown, in the company of the coarse, bloody-minded Syldoon, he is promised a chance to finally record an historic adventure well worth the telling, but first he must survive the experience! A gripping military fantasy in the tradition of Glen Cook, Scourge of the Betrayer explores the brutal politics of Empire — and the searing impact of violence and dark magic on a man's soul. 

***
"All empires crumble. All borders change. All kingdoms die. Where I'm taking you, you'll witness the death of a body politic, the expiration of a way of life, the redrawing of a map. Something singular and priceless. So put away your bleak looks and let's eat some of Hobbins' slop."

Well, since you promise so much, Captain Killcoin, and put it so... so perfectly pointedly — alright. Let's.

Scourge of the Betrayer is a lot like that, in fact. That is to say promising, and remarkably well put, specifically but not solely because it comes from a first-time author. I don't know that it makes for an especially satisfying experience on its own, but in some senses it's a great success nevertheless: for one thing, Scourge of the Betrayer serves to lay the foundation for a potentially fascinating fantasy narrative that could straddle the chasm between The First Law and The Lies of Locke Lamora... but never mind that. My main takeaway was that Jeff Salyards is one to watch. Like a hawk. Or perhaps a chronicler.

Such as Arkamondos, say. Arki for short — though most folks wholly ignore him, so the needfulness of this particular diminutive is debatable at best. In any case, Arki is a unremarkable scribe lacking almost all of the qualities one expects from a fantasy protagonist; he's basically a blank slate upon which his clients can chisel out their exploits. At the outset of Scourge of the Betrayer, he's hired by the leader of a band of fearsome Syldoon soldiers to tell the tale of their guerrilla revolution from the ground on up, beginning with a bawdy barroom brawl and a couple thwarted conquests.
"The Syldoon really did seem to have an unhealthy fixation on all things whorish. Their breed of camaraderie was crude, course, callous, and whatever other alliterative pejorative I could summon. Cruel? Perhaps. But there was another quality there as well. Or lack of one. There was no preening or pretension at the table. Their rough humour made no excuses for itself."
Which, for a while, is all well and good - and another in a long line of examples of Salyard's observational, conversational flair - but Scourge of the Betrayer goes on and on along these lines, beating around the proverbial bush for much too long, such that it feels a far cry from what Arki (and I) had imagined of this supposedly epic adventure. Truth be told, the latest of Night Shade's new voices takes such an age to get his house in order that halfway through the whole, I was ready to dismiss this debut as a trifle — which is to say delicious, yes, but not exactly nutritious.

Thankfully, Scourge of the Betrayer isn't all empty calories. There are rumblings of intrigue in the second act, and in the third, when our company arrives at Alespell, some sustained action, at last!

In the interim, a couple of characters start to stand out from the crowd. And indeed, it's quite the crowd: alongside Akri and Captain Killcoin - Braylar to his mates - count Mulldoos, Hewspear, Lloi, Tomner, Vendurro, Glesswik, and I don't know how many others. Of the lot, Lloi - a flea-bitten outcast from the darkly magical Memoridons, with half a hand and a winningly dismissive way about her - Lloi surely steals the show, but Braylar is interesting from the get-go, and Arki, ever easy-does-it, gets there eventually.

So Salyard's character-building is strong. World-building, however, doesn't seem to be his bag. Excepting one wagon and Three Casks - that is, the inn where Scourge of the Betrayer kicks off, or should do - the only setting we get a sense of is Alespell... and even then.

I can't help but think a better idea of place and space would have added depth and texture to a narrative in need of some firmer foundation, but of course, world-building isn't a requirement, it's a choice. And Salyards is smart enough to make a running joke of his: Arki is desperate to take in some local colour by way of the celebrations raging in Alespell, but Braylar keeps delaying his day at the fair. "Don't fear," he soothes. "You shall have your opportunity to explore [..] in due time, but not just yet."

Maybe next time! I certainly hope so. And understand this: despite my initial issues, I'll be sticking with this series, because by the end, the pieces are finally in place. Never mind that they aren't necessarily the pieces you'd expected to see — that's half the fun. Scourge of the Betrayer may promise great gravitas, but what it delivers is insidiousness, in quantity and quality. As Arki observes, "There was nothing large or grand about the things happening here. They were small and shadowy, punitive and bloody."

Ultimately, Scourge of the Betrayer seems to be going nowhere, and slowly, for far too long for me to recommend it without certain related reservations, but it makes up a lot of lost ground in its non-stop last act, and in the interim, Salyard's witty, wanton dialogue-driven narrative is entertaining enough - just - to keep one's interest from flagging. Considering how much better Scourge of the Betrayer gets as it goes on, Bloodsounder's Arc stands to go from strength to strength as a series.

I need not add that I'll be keeping a close eye on Jeff Salyards from here on out. If you're at all interested in low fantasy à la Cook and Abercrombie, you would be well advised to do likewise.

***

Scourge of the Betrayer
by Jeff Salyards

US Publication: May 2012, Night Shade Books


Recommended and Related Reading

Thursday, 24 May 2012

But I Digress | An Education in the Arts

It feels like just yesterday I was starting out at Uni.

It wasn't. It was, oh... ten years ago I guess? Maybe more. Maybe - I'd like to think - a little less. In any case, my four year degree course ended ages ago, so it must have begun even before that.

I studied English and Film & Media.

It was lots of fun. I look back on the experience more positively than I felt about it at the time, in fact. But however much I enjoyed it, or however much I convinced myself I did, the qualification it was all for has been of... shall we say very little use to me in the years since.

Then again, I don't care to pursue employment in a field that stresses educational achievement. Perhaps if I did, it'd be different. I won't know for a fact until I've given up on my dream once and for all, and then, well... it'll hardly matter, will it?

But enough about me. There's a whole new breed of would-be purveyors of art out there, a whole other generation's worth, and the other day, geek-god Neil Gaiman blessed them with his presence.

By now you'll have been tempted by this video somewhere else on the internet, I bet, but it's 20 minutes long, and if you're anything like me you'll have kept it in an open tab until your computer crashed, then promptly forgotten all about it. I'm embedding it here on The Speculative Scotsman precisely because that's what happened to me, until I was rudely reminded of it.

This, then, is your reminder. 

You'll be glad of it too, as I assuredly was. I've had the pleasure of hearing Neil Gaiman talk in person on a couple of occasions - whenever he's come to Scotland, obviously - but his commencement address to the graduating class of Philidelphia's University of the Arts is leagues more inspirational, dare I say uplifting, than any amount of Q&A.

The author has some stellar advice to share, and anecdotes aplenty to illustrate his experiences. I'll admit some of his sayings seem slightly misguided - optimistic to put it politely - but even these are illuminating, because of course you need a little luck as well as a lot of talent to make it in the arts. Or vice versa.

If I had all day, I could go on about the value of an education in the arts for all of it. But I don't! So I'm just going to let you watch this video, wherein Neil Gaiman is funny, smart and self-effacing, as ever:


Mountains, my friends. Mountains.

What's yours? And here: if you're completely honest with yourself, are you getting any closer to it, doing what you do on a day-to-day basis?

I'll show you mine if you show me yours! :)

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Scotsman Abroad | Special Needs in Strange Worlds

Remember when I went to America?

Yeah, I do too. The good times, and the not so good.

Obviously, this week has been of the latter variety... but I'm starting to feel a bit better about things, or rather, a little less bad.

Anyway. When I was in America, I handed The Speculative Scotsman over to a few of my most eloquent internet friends. Rather that than let the site stagnate, I asked a handful or four of my favourite fellow bloggers to stop off and entertain you all. They did, I need not add, an incredible job. And amongst the guests that stepped up most magnificently: Sarah Chorn of Bookworm Blues.


Well, what goes around comes around.

This month, Sarah's been doing something extraordinary over at her brilliant blog. Rather than asking anyone to contribute anything, in the mode of me, she's hosting four weeks of themed content. Special Needs in Strange Worlds, wherein we consider disability in speculative fiction, is something like twenty posts strong already, and I'd recommend you read through every last one of them. Individually and as one, they've made for invaluable insights into an aspect of the literature we love that's all too rarely brought up, or thought of, full stop.

Now when Sarah asked if I might have something to say about the subject, I agreed immediately. Let me crib a bit from the resulting review to explain what followed:

"I didn’t think it’d be difficult to come up with a couple contenders.

"More fool me.

"I read, shall we say, rather a lot. More now than I used to, before the blog, but even then I was a bit of a bookworm; I enjoyed nothing more than the challenge of a new novel. Sarah’s suggestion, however, had me wondering whether I’d accidentally shut out a whole species of speculative fiction, because beyond a couple of all too obvious options,not a lot occurred." 
Long story short: it turned out that the book I was reading at the time, namely The Scar by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko, was in some senses an examination of one man's mental health, set against a sparse fantasy backdrop.


In the end, I didn't love The Scar - I don't know if I even liked it, though I'd point to the praise that's been showered upon it from here, there and everywhere for the opposing perspective - but I was absolutely fascinated by at least one aspect of it.

So I wrote about that, vis-à-vis disability in speculative fiction.

This, then, is actually a little bit more than a review, and a little bit less. Please do pop on over to Bookworm Blues to read the thing in its entirety. Then the rest of Special Needs in Strange Worlds, I need not add.

Unless you already have. In which case, here's to Sarah - a brilliant blogger with some exceptional assistance, all in support of a superb cause - here's to her for organising something so vast and so very, very valuable.

Sarah: I salute you!

Monday, 21 May 2012

Video Game Review | Silent Hill: Downpour, dev. Vatra Games


Silent Hill has to be one of my all-time favourite franchises, but with each passing year it's become increasingly clear that my position is practically indefensible.

I don't think anyone would dispute that the series started strong. Resident Evil might have popularised the survival horror genre, but let's face facts: it was crude, and unconscionably camp. Occasionally shocking, is how I'd politely describe it, rather than scary, or legitimately horrific. Silent Hill, however, hit on a much more meaningful formula.

In concept, it's incredible: there's this town, see, shrouded in fog, where all sorts of awful evil stuff went down. Never mind the particulars... they aren't exactly consistent in any case, except insofar as there are always monsters. Into this, then, comes a bedraggled character searching for something: a loved one, or a lost one. Soon, he or she realises that they're trapped in this terrifying town - indeed that Silent Hill seems to have it in for them... that it has in fact reoriented itself around their psyche, somehow - and all they can do (which is to say all you can do) is run like hell, before hell itself comes a-calling.

Invariably, the Silent Hill games have been about exploration, with occasional outbursts of unmanageable action. The essential experience is of being oppressed into a state of permanent terror; you live in fear of every encounter, because the chances are it'll be your last. It's a game that encourages you to run away as often as possible. To puzzle your way through a world of blood and rust and ominous noises while you try not to let the horror of everything everywhere get to you. But it does. It always does.


Or rather, it always did. If I'm honest, the series peaked way back when in the PlayStation 2 era, with either its first or its second sequel. With Silent Hill 4: The Room, the writing was already scrawled on the wall, and when all the key creators departed the franchise soon after, everyone's worst suspicions were confirmed.

As a franchise, Silent Hill didn't immediately die, but it did wither somewhat. Mistakes were made with each of the successive entries, each of which emerged, tellingly, from a different developer: the handheld entry Silent Hill: Origins was a mediocre prequel, Silent Hill: Homecoming was just deathly dull, meanwhile Silent Hill: Shattered Memories had at its still-beating heart a tragically misjudged mechanic, though otherwise it worked quite well. The latest iteration, and the first to come to either Xbox 360 or PS3 in years, is much of a muchness with these three. It's sure to satisfy a few die-hards, but newcomers need not apply, and players between these extremes are apt to find themselves at best bored.

At the outset, as ever, I had hopes, and a couple of interesting twists on the prior prerequisites threatened to make Silent Hill: Downpour memorable. Our player character is an outright anti-hero rather than the well-meaning men and women we've controlled before: Murphy Pendleton has been incarcerated for a crime we don't know yet the details of, but if there was ever any doubt about his guilt, the tutorial - in which we're taught how to interact with the world, use weapons and attack "enemies" by way of a shivving in the showers - puts these plainly to rest.

Fast forward a little bit, and the prison bus Murphy's on crashes on the outskirts of Silent Hill, at a local curiosity called the Devil's Pit. In the process of exploring this area, the bells that toll the town's trademark transformation ring out for the first time, and we descend into a labyrinthine Escher-esque otherworld, complete with unbearable chase sequences à la Shattered Memories.


So far, so good. Sadly, that's where the innovations begin and end... which is not to say Vatra haven't made other changes. They have, and they're basically Downpour's downfall. Afterwards, you see, Murphy takes a train to Silent Hill proper, where the player is faced with what can only be described as a kinda sorta open world, complete with endless backtracking, maze-like level design, and everyone's favourite filler: fetch quests! Oh god the fetch quests...

If you're still considering Downpour, take heed of this advice at least: the incidental objectives you'll pick up as you explore the town - which now rains often enough that it put me in mind of the Highlands and Islands of northern Scotland - much as they might sound like they could be worth your while, they aren't. No sir. But for one or two more self-contained sequences, they're simplistic, protracted and ultimately unsatisfying. Plus the quest rewards are utter rubbish.

Story missions are only moderately more interesting. Murphy, as it transpires, isn't necessarily an out-and-out villain - he's done bad things, but for good reasons - yet his development throughout the eight to ten hours it'll take to be done with Downpour (and by then that'll be your utmost aspiration) is awkward and obvious.

Occasionally you'll meet other people, but these folks flit in and out of the narrative with no rhyme or reason, often vanishing entirely, or simply appearing purposelessly in the first. There's an angry lady cop, a suicidal bus driver, a nasty nun and a very determined postman; that's the extent of the depth and texture you can expect.


The story itself seems to be about Murphy's guilt over the "mysterious" disappearance of his kid, but even this thread unravels so ponderously and predictably that by the time you reach a revelation the clunky cut-scenes that you've worked so tirelessly toward have played out in your head tens of times.

And then there's the combat. Let us be content with the conclusion that it is truly terrible.

Downpour gets off to a credible start, sure, but all too soon everything was promising about it recedes into the middle distance, and thereafter the ever-present ether. Most players don't finish games, so I suppose it makes sense for Vatra to have frontloaded the latest in the Silent Hill series with the best of their ideas. At this late stage, though, it seems cruel and unusual to tease the type of people likely to give Downpour a go - which is to say me, and folks like me, who finish everything on principle - with an hour of reasonably good game, only to call it quits with nine tenths of the whole as yet ahead.

A disappointment, then. Not broken, but boring, and undeniably bland. No surprises there. And what, I wonder, is Silent Hill worth without the element of surprise on side?

Friday, 18 May 2012

We Interrupt This Broadcast | For Furby

I haven't had the heart to blog about books or movies this week, or to Tweet. I haven't written word one about anything since Monday, in point of fact, and there's a reason for that.

Three years ago - almost to the day, damn it - the other half and I got it into our heads that having a cat about the house would be wonderful. We went to the closest shelter and fell, not for a cutesy little kitten or a feisty young feline in full possession of its powers, but for a nervous long-term resident hiding in a brown paper bag. Furby was 14 years old at the time, she'd been blind since birth, and though everyone at the shelter thought she was awesome, no-one seemed to be willing to home her.

For shame! We didn't get to spend as many months as we'd have liked with one another, but Furby was part of the family for long enough that I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that she was the best cat I ever had. The kindest, the sweetest, the most loving, the most loyal. Also the softest. And certainly the silliest.

I'd put up a picture, but it still makes me sore to see her.

I've been lucky, in my adult life, to have had to deal with death so very rarely. My grandparents all passed early on, and the rest of my family are still fighting fit. That's something to be thankful for, I suppose... and I am. But it's hard to hold gratitude in your heart in the face of such a tragic turn of events.

I'm not going to go into detail, but suffice it to say we said our goodbyes to Furby in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. She'd been poorly for days. We knew it was coming. And when it did, we were all glad it had. At least, we were in retrospect.

So. Last night, after some sudden gardening, we buried Furby in the rockery in our back yard, under five feet of soft soil and a gorgeous red granite rock. We planted some beautiful bluebells around the boulder, in the hope that they blossom every Spring, the better to remind us all that we've lost. Of who we've lost, I should say, because Furby was every bit a part of the family.

She was one of us... just with whiskers.

...

Anyway. I'll be back at this thing in a bit. This week, though, there have been certain other things on my mind. I'm sure all of you who've loved and lost a close animal companion will understand.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Book Review | Half Sick of Shadows by David Logan


Buy this book from

On the eve of Granny Hazel's burial in the back garden, a stranger in his time machine - a machine that bears an uncanny resemblance to a Morris Minor - visits five year-old Edward with a strange request. And Edward agrees to be his friend.

But Edward is not alone in the world. His twin sister Sophia is about to bring future tragedy upon herself through an all-too-literal misunderstanding of a promise she's made to their father.

So while Sophia stays at home, seemingly condemned to spend the rest of her days in The Manse - a world untouched by modern trappings - Edward is sent to boarding school. There he encounters the kind and the not-so-kind, and meets the strangest child. His name is Alf, and Alf is a boy whose very existence would seem to hint at universes of unlimited possibilities... and who might one day help Edward liberate Sophia.


*** 

Half Sick of Shadows, the joint winner of the inaugural Terry Pratchett Prize alongside Apocalypse Cow, has the makings of a debut for the ages. Its first third, in fact, is positively enthralling: the plot is piffle yet ineffably pleasant, the setting - a tumbledown old Manse with a cemetery out back, next to the toilet ("We had pots for pee, but plops were outside only") - is perfect, and I found our protagonist Edward Pike to be precocious but not off-putting, though your mileage may vary.

Consider this:
"Everything costs money, Mother said and, it didn't grow on trees. Shops were far away and maybe you had to travel across the sea in a boat to get to one. There were pictures of boats in the encyclopedia. One, called the Titanic, crashed into an ice cube and sank, drowning everybody except Robinson Crusoe, who washed up on a desert island and ate coconuts."
And this:
"If Father had allowed newspapers, I would have been better prepared to encounter the world. Encountering the world, and possibly conquering it, was my destiny. Despite the absence of information - except in the encyclopedia - about life elsewhere on our flat planet - the one God made in six days - I knew we were safer in here, in the Manse, with the dead all around, than out there, in the world, with so much Devil's work going on."
Sadly, Half Sick of Shadows wholly loses its way after a deeply endearing introduction. What appears a sweet small scale tale explodes exponentially outward, and almost all its power evacuates the immediate area with it. That being said, to overlook the quality of what comes first would be to do this debut a terrible disservice.

It begins, then, with the twins. Edward and Sophia are "a fraction short of five," and joined at the hip figuratively if not literally. Still, you couldn't prise them apart if you tried. Only one man can: their father. And one day, to everyone's detriment, he does. After burying Granny Hazel in the back garden, he elicits a solemn promise out of Edward's other half, to "Never ever desert your mother, daughter. Never ever leave your home." Sophia's choice is no choice at all; she swears, and refuses ever after to venture far from the Manse, assuming some curse is apt to accompany her.

So it is that Edward goes to boarding school alone, and soon loses sight of his once-inseparable sister. At Whitehead House, he and we meet a boy who shares Edward's age and intellect, but Alf is an odd character from the offing, and imaginary - apparently - to boot.

Here's where Half Sick of Shadows starts to go off the rails, and it's a matter of pacing, primarily. Now that Edward's escaped the Manse, the author seems to want nothing more than to bring him back quick smart - home is assuredly where this book's heart is - thus the middle third of David Logan's debut is a mess of missed opportunities and terrible time compression that one suspects he's well aware of, given telling lines like "Time did seem to be concluding. And faster than before." (p.163)

To wit, our protagonist goes from five years old to fifteen over the course of a couple of chapters. Suddenly he feels like a complete stranger, meanwhile the situation in the Manse has gone from bad to ghastly. Where before Edward had only to worry about horrible haircuts, mysterious dead dogs and a time-traveling Morris Minor, now there's rape, mercy killing and incest to contend with. In short order, Half Sick of Shadows goes from Good Omens territory to a place of poison and perversity that reminded me of nothing so much as The Cement Garden, that early Ian McEwan masterpiece — except Logan lacks that literary legend's crucial confidence.

His sense of humour, however, is excellent, and initially, his premise has a lot of promise. In their younger years at least, the twins are terrific company, and there are a few ideas in Half Sick of Shadows that deserve better treatment: namely Alf and, not unrelatedly - although it's difficult to discern - the time-traveling Morris Minor. Alas, these threads of narrative and character become hopelessly entangled with a hodgepodge of other nonsense, so that by the halfway mark, never mind the end, they have frayed to the point of breaking.

For a first novel, Half Sick of Shadows is worth a look on the strength of its wonderfully whimsical opening act alone, but be advised: look at this bit quickly, then avert your eyes. It gets awfully ugly awfully quickly thereafter.

***

Half Sick of Shadows
by David Logan

UK Publication: May 2012, Doubleday

Buy this book from
Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com
IndieBound / The Book Depository 

Recommended and Related Reading

Friday, 11 May 2012

Comic Book Review | Crossed Vol. 1


Preacher was great, wasn't it?
 
And Preacher co-creator Garth Ennis has written some other stuff that I've enjoyed... though "enjoyed" might be a poor way to put it. Let's say "been gripped by." Or better yet, "been unable to look away from," like the scene of some horrific crime you just can't help but gawp at. I refer to his initial run on Punisher, of course, and nominally to Hitman too, which was published concurrently with Preacher, in the best years of Garth Ennis' career.

But it's been a decade since these three series ended, and most everything of Ennis' I've read in the intervening period has either soured me or simply sickened me. Here's looking at you, Chronicles of Wormwood... and War Story... oh, and The Boys. Particularly that latter; a more disgusting book than The Boys I do not know, nor would I want to. Then again I could only stand to read the first six issues. Maybe it gets better?

In any case, if there was even a miniscule part of me that still believed Garth Ennis was a halfway decent writer, then Crossed has killed it dead. Killed it dead and fucked it in the eye-socket with the severed horse's organ this first volume's antagonist - Horsecock, none other - carries around in lieu of a more socially acceptable weapon. Because Garth Ennis is at the helm. And that's what Garth Ennis does, these days.


Amongst the other highlights: the murder of a man because he's being a bit annoying; panel after panel of excruciatingly graphic depictions of randy zombies raping men, women and children alike; and most appalling of all, the calculated execution of an entire class of primary school kids, supposedly to save them from the horrors of surviving a Crossed apocalypse. I mean, fair enough: it's not pretty. But maybe it's prettier than a bullet in the brain, fired at close-range by someone who's supposed to be taking care of you.

But then, the alternative's not nearly as shocking, is it? And that's what Garth Ennis has made his name trading in: disgust and discomfort. The repugnant and the perverse. Indeed, there's really not a lot else to the first collection of Crossed. It's The Walking Dead with stumpfucking and - in stark contrast with the ensemble Robert Kirkman has gathered together with such tender loving care for his transmedia success story - a cast of characters even the most affectionate individual would have a hard time giving a crap about. I mean, Ennis clearly doesn't, and I've forgotten all their names already. Even the Wikipedia page could care less what this motley lot are called.

Meanwhile the world of Crossed is as ugly as the survivors who run willy-nilly around it, though it bears saying that it's rendered exceptionally well. Indeed, Jacen Burrows, whose pencils I've come across before - paired with the words and the worlds of far better writers than Ennis, including Alan Moore and Warren Ellis - is easily the best thing about this book. Ably supported by Juanmar, whose muted colour palette is only interrupted when blood follows, as invariably it does, Burrows' clinically clean lines leave little to the imagination, which is perfectly in step with Ennis' very direct script. You could describe them as dispassionate, perhaps, but then they'd have to be in service of scenes such as these.


To think a four time Eisner Award-winning author has fallen to this. It's enough to make one wonder whether Hitman and Punisher and Preacher were just happy accidents.

I don't doubt Crossed will have its fans, including people who sincerely believe Survival of the Dead represents the peak of George A. Romero's career of achievements, and those folks who love SAW VI above all other SAWs, say. The easily pleased, in other words, and that's putting it politely: a measure of restraint that may never again appear in the same sentence as the words Garth and Ennis.

In any event, if they want Crossed, then by the dead, they can have it. It's mean and it's nasty and it has no heart. It's cruel and unusual, and singularly spiteful to boot. Crossed is practically cancerous, so it might come as something of a surprise to you that I have every intention of reading the next volume. Maybe it's morbid curiosity, but I should say there's nothing inherently wrong with the premise behind this series in and of itself, and given Garth Ennis' absence, Family Values - written by Stray Bullets creator David Lapham - might just be alright. It certainly couldn't be any worse than this nauseating drivel.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

You Tell Me | "Fixing" Our Favourite Fiction

So... I digressed again yesterday.

You need only look a little below this post to see my meanderings about Mass Effect 3 in full, but in brief, because it's not yet the law that you read every last word I write: I banged on about the uproar over the game's controversial conclusion, and how BioWare has in my view been its own worst enemy in terms of their reaction to the clamour for a more fitting finale.


Which is to say, in response to the complaints of a few thousand disenfranchised fans - small potatoes in the grander scheme of things, when you consider the tens of millions of units this series has shifted to date - the studio announced that a so-called "Extended Cut" of the game would be made available sometime this summer for free via a piece of DLC.

Make of that what you will. I'm certainly unhappy about how BioWare have handled the situation, but then, I still haven't played Mass Effect 3, in large because I feel like its creators have undercut the integrity of the entire series by backstepping over a little bitching.

Of course this sort of thing has happened before, in innumerable other media - in movies there are more Director's Cuts than I could count - but then, artistic visions have a long and sordid history of being compromised by studio interference, only to see the light of day a little later. In this case, the state of play is quite a bit different.

But I'm in danger of digressing again, and I'm afraid today isn't the day for another round on the ol' rollercoaster. Instead, what I was hoping to do was borrow BioWare's curious concept of what The End actually is and apply it to some of the things we all hold dear.

So books. We like those, right? :)

Thus, the question:

If The End is no longer set in stone,
which endings would you want altered?

And:

Assuming that the original author of any given
standalone or series was prepared to take another
shot at tying off his or her narrative and characters,
who and what and why would you choose?

I have two timely examples to get the ball rolling. First and foremost, I'd love it if The Dark Tower had ended a little better. I remember feeling so completely crestfallen after the conclusion of the seventh and final volume in that epic fantasy western that for a few years I wished I had devoted my time and energy reading something else.

I don't feel so strongly about it today, but only, I think, because it's been so long, and time heals even the worst wounds.


What I'm still somewhat perturbed by is the end of The Hunger Games. Which is to say almost all of Mockingjay. I won't go into detail, but if you ask me, said series went out on a bit of a bum note.

Mostly, though, I want to know what you folks would do if you were publishing overlords with the unimpeachable power to demand better endings. So...

You tell me!

And please, try not to stress about the rightness or wrongness of roundly overruling your favourite creators. After all, BioWare could give a fig about their fiction. Evidently all bets are off...

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

But I Digress | Mass Cause and Effect, or, The End Again

The lifers amongst you might remember how oddly unmoved I was by the build-up to Mass Effect 3, which is to say the conclusion - for the moment - of one of my favourite video game series of recent years.


The marketing, I think, was what put me off before the fact: the decision to focus on the extraneous multiplayer mode BioWare had developed for the latest iteration of their acclaimed space opera.

I play, shall we say, quite a lot of video games, but only rarely do I mess about with multiplayer modes. In large part that's because of the exceedingly unpleasant people one often encounters online. I have very little desire to be called a faggot by fourteen year olds who are nevertheless substantially better at shooting dudes in the face than I'll ever be. And there's another thing to consider: the vast time investment it takes to be good enough at any one game - every one of which has its particular idiosyncrasies to consider - to compete with other people, even the complete and utter asshats aforementioned, in a public arena.

The older you get, I guess, the less free time you have to devote to such things. So when BioWare's publicity peeps started pimping Mass Effect 3's multiplayer instead of talking about narrative or character or innovations on the single-player side of the divide, I'll admit: I kinda sorta switched off.

And then there was that fuss about how the man hours devoted to Mass Effect 3's counter-intuitive horde mode had to have impacted the single-player campaign. I didn't mean to pay any attention to this, the latest in a long line of idiot uproars - sight-unseen, such judgements are surely beyond pointless - but as release date loomed, I realised that I wasn't at all excited about finally finishing the fight.

Or wait, was that another game?

In any event, what with all of the above - and my month in America fast approaching to boot - I opted to rent Mass Effect 3 instead of buying it, as I bought the first and second installment in this singular series. Also worth taking into account: I was 30 hours into Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning at the time of Mass Effect 3's release, and determined to beat it before I started in on another mammoth RPG. This took a lot longer than I'd imagined - in point of fact I only finished the first in the Amalur franchise last week - and by the time I was ready to pick up something else, Mass Effect 3 was no longer a priority.

I'll bet you can imagine why.

If you're interested in video games at all, you'll have heard about the averse reaction the latest Mass Effect inspired in its very vocal player-base. Perhaps that's to overstate the case somewhat - specifically it was the ending that people reacted badly to - but one way or the other, Mass Effect 3 went down like a lead balloon. Like a bitter pill no-one wanted to swallow... especially the franchise's die-hard fans, seventy-some thousand of whom have since signed their names to a petition made directly to the developers to have the game's cheat of an ending altered.

Which is and was all well and good - indeed, it raises a fairly fascinating question we'll talk more about tomorrow - but again, I tried not to let it affect me. Here on The Speculative Scotsman I've talked about my issues with The End, in the abstract, time and time again: about how tricky it is to offer closure to all comers at the same time as maintaining some sense of mystery or suspense in your story.

In short, I'm no stranger to unsatisfactory endings - to a certain extent I expect them, these days - so if Mass Effect 3 was going to go out with a pitiful whimper rather than the almighty bang I think we can all agree the series has earned, then sure, that's a shame... but so be it. The End is still The End even when we wish it weren't.

Or is it?

As it happened, it certainly wasn't as simple as that when it came to Mass Effect 3. Because in early April, in response to the fan campaign and the various critical complaints leveled against the conclusion in question, the boffins behind BioWare and the Mass Effect franchise came out with this priceless piece of pandering:
"We are all incredibly proud of Mass Effect 3 and the work done by Casey Hudson and team," said Dr. Ray Muzyka, Co-Founder of BioWare and General Manager of EA’s BioWare Label. "Since launch, we have had time to listen to the feedback from our most passionate fans and we are responding. With the Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut we think we have struck a good balance in delivering the answers players are looking for while maintaining the team’s artistic vision for the end of this story arc in the Mass Effect universe."

Casey Hudson, Executive Producer of the Mass Effect series added, "We have reprioritized our post-launch development efforts to provide the fans who want more closure with even more context and clarity to the ending of the game, in a way that will feel more personalized for each player."
Oh is that so?

That was the final nail in the coffin for me and Mass Effect 3, at least for the time being. I'm going to return my rented copy to LoveFilm and potentially re-assess the situation when this so-called Extended Cut is made available.

But even then: at the point at which creators are willing to fundamentally change their creations simply to satisfy some embarrassing collective clamour - and from the internet, of all places - what artistic integrity can they truly lay claim to?


Whether I end up playing Mass Effect 3 or not - and sooner or later I expect I will - for me at least, its narrative is now null and void. And given how meaningful that narrative had been to me before all the awkwardness over Mass Effect 3, that's markedly more troubling than any misstep BioWare may or may not have made in the game's conclusion as was.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Giving the Game Away | The Assassin's Blessing

Last Wednesday we talked about The Assassin's Curse by Cassandra R. Clarke. We touched on its purdy cover art, the potentially mixed blessing of its blurb, as well the summer its author spent attending Clarion West, by way of the mini-bio that I'll admit drew me to this book more than any other thing.

If you read the post in full you'll have noticed I threw another thing in the mix, in addition: a giveaway, yay! That is to say, of a single, exceedingly early ARC of The Assassin's Curse.

I suppose the question you had to answer was a bit of a tricky one, by online competition standards at least, but a good gang of you gave it a shot in any event, and amongst those of you who sent in entries, a few even hit upon the solution to the riddle reproduced here:

Which popular author will be bringing
the fight to the club at Clarion this summer?

The answer, of course, was Chuck Palahniuk, one of this year's Clarion West instructors. Because he's the guy what wrote Fight Club, right?

 

Right.

Anyway, we have a winner, and his name is... Ben Lorber. Nicely done!

I'll get you an email in a moment to double-check your details, Ben, but congrats: you'll be one of the first folks in the world to see an ARC of The Assassin's Curse, and if it turns out to be half as fun a frolic as it sounds, why that sounds like one mighty fine prize.

Last but not least, thanks again to Amanda at Strange Chemistry for arranging this whole thing. I'm sure everyone would agree that we can hardly wait to hear what else you have up your sleeves!

Monday, 7 May 2012

Book Review | Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig



Miriam Black knows when you will die.

Still in her early twenties, she's foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, suicides, and slow deaths by cancer. But when Miriam hitches a ride with truck driver Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days Louis will be gruesomely murdered while he calls her name.

Miriam has given up trying to save people; that only makes their deaths happen. But Louis will die because he met her, and she will be the next victim. No matter what she does she can't save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she'll have to try.

***
"They say that blackbirds are psychopomps. Like sparrows, they're birds that supposedly help shuttle souls from the world of the living to the world of the dead. [...] On the other hand, the genus - or is it species? I always get them mixed up - of the common blackbird is Turdus, which, of course, has the word 'turd' in it. Not ideal."
Indeed not. But in truth, Miriam Black doesn't much mind the symbolic significance of the blackbirds that seem to follow her wherever she goes. She's too busy trying to get by. And for her, the getting by... well, it ain't particularly pretty. On a good day all it amounts to is "another motel. Another fuck. Another cigarette. Circles and circles, the spinning snake, the endless carousel," and I'm afraid the powers that be don't have a great many good days in store for our cruel and unusual protagonist.

Miriam has a messed up relationship with fate in any case. That's because every time she touches someone for the first time, skin to skin that is, she sees how they'll die. Their last moments, be they horrid or heartbreaking, play out before her; an unstoppable snuff film in her mind's eye.

Of course, "this thing? It's got rules." I won't bore you with every one, but here's the kicker, parsed per Miriam's inimitable wisdom:
"Death isn't always obvious, you know - a guy clutches his head and falls over, could be a lot of things. But I know what it is. I know if it's a brain tumor or a blood clot or a bumblebee that's burrowed its way into his cerebral cortex.

"I also know when. Year, day, hour, minute, second. It's a red pushpin stuck in the great timeline of the universe, and I can see it. The pushpin I can't see, oddly, is where. The location remains a mystery. Outside visual cues, of course. I see a chick's head explode in the parking lot of a McDonald's with street signs at the corner of Asshole Boulevard and Shitbird Lane and she's wearing a 'Don't Mess with Texas' T-shirt, then I can use my Sherlock Holmesian deductive reasoning to figure out that pesky riddle. Or I just use Google. I fucking love Google."
Would that one could Google the specifics of how Miriam came into her gruesome gift - Blackbirds certainly isn't the type to kiss and tell - but though we might not know how she earned it, except that she did, we're well aware of what she's done with it... in recent years at least. She's become, of all things, a sort of supernatural con artist: she's gotten into the habit of haunting the almost-dead in order to rob them of all their worldly possessions when they do die, as per Miriam's visions. The better, presumably, to bankroll the next motel. The next fuck. The next cigarette.

It's a life, right?

Be that as it may, or may not, life is about to get a whole lot harder for our cocksure evildoer, because when she grasps the hand of a decent man - a truck driver who stops to offer her a lift - as ever, she sees how he'll meet his maker... but his is an horrendous end, and somehow, Miriam is complicit in it; Louis' last word is her name, no less.

Reeling from this, Miriam seeks solace in the arms of an asshole - not to put too fine a point on it - but Ashley is running away from something hellish himself, for his own reasons, and soon (so soon) they find themselves face to face with fate, vis-à-vis the lighthouse where poor Louis is destined to leave the land of the living.

Blackbirds, by Chuck Wendig - who cut his teeth on last year's undead escapade Double Dead - is not a long novel, or a short one by urban fantasy standards... which is what Blackbirds is, in case you were wondering. In fact, given that, I dare say it's the perfect length. Wendig's inherently questionable heroine is neither gone too soon nor in danger of overstaying her welcome: the reader spends just enough time with Miriam to get past her malfeasant exterior, but not so long as to truly turn one's stomach.

To be sure, at no point is she some pretty picture. She curses like a sailor - so her mother has always said, and her mother tells it true - and she eats like a lumberjack. Meanwhile Miriam has sex so often "that it's a hobby for her like scrapbooking or collecting baseball cards is for other people." And it hardly bears saying that what she does on a day-to-day basis, for no better reason than money, is despicable.

On the other hand, there's something slyly seductive about her as a character, something almost perversely appealing that stops just short of coming across as tired or offensive... though here some other critics might disagree with me. I for one found that though Miriam is foul-mouthed and foul-minded to certain extent, she's also incredibly resourceful, strong-willed and hard-skinned. She's smart, self-aware and witty to a Whedonesque degree. And she takes no pleasure in the terrible things she does, except insofar as she's the type to laugh about the crappy stuff rather than cry.

Anyway, what with Blackbirds' inexorable, practically irresistible pace, one doesn't often have the chance to question Miriam's motivations. Occasional flashbacks give us a glimpse of her horrid history, but beyond these the action simply doesn't stop. Reading Blackbirds is a brief, breathless, and I think brilliant experience. The narrative is simplistic, I suppose, and not without a few obvious plot holes, but by and large it's aptly handled; instead, this book's complexity comes from questions of character that there are no right or wrong answers to, however many dicks there are in the picture. In the end, figuring out Miriam is its own reward.

And oh, what spoils! Chuck Wendig was one to watch beforehand, but with this twisted little treat he cements an already-estimable reputation. Blackbirds is dirty, filthy, nasty... fantastic. If you can stand the sight of some awfully ugly stuff, you're exceedingly likely to love it.

For my part, I already have my pre-order in for Mockingbird, which is to say the next chapter of Miriam's miserable existence. Roll on August.

***

Blackbirds
by Chuck Wendig

UK Publication: May 2012, Angry Robot Books
US Publication: April 2012, Angry Robot Books


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