Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Book Review | The Heretic Land by Tim Lebbon

An island prison. An ocean full of monsters. No chance of escape.

Sailors are afraid to land at the prison colony of Skythe — instead they throw the convicts overboard. The heretical scholar Bon Ugane might make it to the shore, but will he survive the island itself?

Among the prisoners competing brutally for survival and wildlife warped by fallout from an ancient war, something else waits on Skythe: a living weapon whose very existence is a heresy. Destroyed many years ago, now it silently begins to clutch at life once more.


As I said in response to a comment on my review of Tim Lebbon's first fantasy novel for Orbit, I don't look back on Echo City in anger, but I do wish it had been a little less derivative. It read like bootleg China Mieville, and given Mieville's characteristic refusal to repeat himself, perhaps there's a place for that... a particular niche to appeal to. That said, if authors are going to beg, borrow or steal from such a master craftsman, they've got no-one to blame but themselves when their work, like Lebbon's last, falls short come the comparison.

To put it politely, then, Echo City had its issues, yet I enjoyed it enough that I was prepared to give its author another shot. This week, I did exactly that, and I'll say this about The Heretic Land: the premise, at least, is unbelievably appealing.

An island prison, like in Lost or Shutter Island, except staffed and surrounded on all sides by monsters and mutated men? Yes please. A man of science sentenced to serve a term because he dared to profane something as sacred as faith? Sure thing. And last but not least, a fallen god - or a being so superior to we mere mortals that it is virtually indistinguishable from a fallen god - born again into the world after untold centuries dead, or only dormant? Well alright!

Sadly, the blurb is probably the best thing about The Heretic Land.

It begins as clumsily as it continues: with some awkward worldbuilding and an at best sketchy rendering of our cast of characters, as on the prisoner transport over the sea to Skythe, our hapless protagonist Bon Ugane whispers with his inevitable love interest Lechmy Borle... about his life story, her more secretive interests, and what to expect of the infected isle when they finally get there. Like the premise, this gloss is superficially promising:
"Some [prisoners] would be political dissidents like him, banished by Alderia's rulers, the Ald, for questioning their word and the tenets of their rule. Others could be religious exiles sent away for being too vocal in their own beliefs; some fringe religions were allowed, but if they actively challenged belief in the Fade they had gone too far. Perhaps there were murderers, rapists, or terrorists. He would not ask, and few people seemed willing to betray their crimes. They might all be classed as criminals by the Ald, but in many cases that would be all they had in common." (p.10)
That said, these introductory elements appear so transparent that for a time it feels like we're reading notes for a novel instead of a completed piece of work, and though The Heretic Land doesn't get any worse than that, nor, as it goes on, does it get a great deal better. The dialogue is dreary; the prose pedestrian. The plot is plodding, and predictable. Rather than representing agency, our characters, such as they are, are dragged along by the narrative - quite literally in one case - sorely testing one's investment in their perspectives.

However, The Heretic Land has a few redeeming features. Once it's been established, the setting for this struggle between science and spiritualism is impressive. "Alderia's use of forbidden magic had not killed Skythe, but had destined it to a future of weakness, mutation, and steady, slow decline. It had been six hundred years [since the war], and it might be six hundred more until this land was truly dead." (p.58) Thus the monsters, and no small quantity of rather visceral violence; here, the former horror author plays to his strengths, giving The Heretic Land a firm, if ultimately inconsequential foundation.

I still say Tim Lebbon is a talent - he may write a great novel one day - but for the time being, I can only conclude that The Heretic Land is amongst his weaker works. My feelings about Echo City were mixed anyway, and I dare say Lebbon's latest is still less impressive. I certainly didn't despise it, but I didn't adore either. Instead, a fate worse than hate: it made me meh.


The Heretic Land
by Tim Lebbon

UK Publication: August 2012, Orbit

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

Recommended and Related Reading

Monday, 30 July 2012

The Scotsman Abroad | An Ode to Fforde

With the recent release of the latest Thursday Next novel, my wrangler over at Tor.com put out the word that she was interested in some sort of introduction to the works and worlds of one Jasper Fforde.

I need not add that I jumped at the chance to burble about the various series he has on the go. I put together a primer on the first volumes of all four — two of which I've reviewed on The Speculative Scotsman, here and here. Then I got my thinking cap on, wondering which of The Eyre Affair, The Big Over Easy, Shades of Grey and The Last Dragonslayer would be the best candidate for new readers to begin with.

My answer might surprise you.

Or, if you've been reading TSS carefully, it might not! :)

Here's a bit, in any event, from the first part of the article, which went live on Tor.com late last week:
This month alone saw the release of the seventh volume of Fforde's most singular saga: The Woman Who Died A Lot stars the former and presumably future literary detective Thursday Next, whose sublime shenanigans through time and text led, at the last, to the loss of her odd employment. It’s a terrific new novel, but if you haven’t read Fforde before, know now that this is not the introduction you or indeed he deserves.

Nor, in all likelihood, will Fforde’s next book be, whether it’s a sequel at long last — or indeed a prequel — to Shades of Grey, or The Return of Shandar, which is to say the conclusion of the Dragonslayer trilogy.

What I’m saying is: if you aren’t already reading Jasper Fforde, you should be, but it can be difficult, as has become apparent, to determine where, exactly, and with what, one should start. This may or may not be because Fforde lives and works in Wales, the undisputed Kingdom of confusion, and home, of course, to the community of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.

In any case, that’s what An Ode to Fforde is all about. It’s essentially a primer, not so much to help you make up your mind whether or not Jasper Fforde’s fiction is for you — if you ask me, and self-evidently somebody did, it’s for everyone — but rather to answer that eternal question: which of this imaginative madman’s many and various books would you be best to begin with?
There's been a healthy amount of discussion in the comments as well, which is always a pleasure.
So if you do click through, please, take a second to tell us all about your first, or your favourite, Fforde.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Books Received | The BoSS Is Back Again... And So Soon!

"For one week only," I wrote about the return of the blog's books received feature a month ago.

Well, far be it from me to step on my own toes, but as of this afternoon, self-evidently, The BoSS is back again, and with a grab bag of truly brilliant-looking books!

Don't, whatever you do, take this as some sort of suggestion of a regular schedule. In future, I think, I'll run occasional editions as and when I have an interesting enough assortment of new books to talk about. Nearly three years into this thing, you and I both know what I'm likely to read, and what, in all probability, I'm not... so there's no sense in burbling about all the nonsense any longer, is there?

With that, let's dig in to this week's excellent selection.


The Twelve
by Justin Cronin

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 25/10/12
by Orion

Review Priority
5 (A Sure Thing)

The Blurb: The Twelve. Death-row prisoners with nightmare pasts and no future, until they were selected for a secret experiment to create something more than human.
Now they are the future, and humanity's worst nightmare has begun. The Twelve.

My Thoughts: Though it was (to put it politely) divisive in some circles, The Passage was one of the best and most memorable books I read during the first year of The Speculative Scotsman, in 2010. The Twelve, then, has been quite a while coming, but given its sheer size - which is neither as vast as its predecessor, nor massively less long - that was only to be expected.

Come this Halloween, in any event, the wait will be over.

I full well expect The Twelve to be darkly fantastic, and given the three months (!) between now and its release in October, I mean to take my sweet time reading it. Because there's nothing quite as likely to ruin a good book than the need to rush through it, is there?

The Dirty Streets of Heaven
by Tad Williams

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 13/09/2012
by Hodder & Stoughton

Review Priority
4 (Pretty Bloody Likely)

The Blurb: Bobby Dollar isn't your average angel.

Sure, he takes the occasional trip to Heaven, but his job as an advocate - arguing the fate of the recently deceased - keeps him pretty busy on Earth, and he's more than happy to spend the rest of his time propping up the bar with his fellow immortals.

Until the day a soul goes missing, presumed stolen by 'the other side'.

A new chapter in the war between heaven and hell is about to open. And Bobby is right in the middle of it, with only a desirable but deadly demon to aid him.

My Thoughts: In my younger years, the Otherland saga was one of the first epic speculative series I read from start to finish, so I suppose I have a certain attachment to Tad Williams. Not enough of one to guarantee that I'll read everything he writes - I never did get around to Shadowmarch, for instance, although I still intend to, one day - but The Dirty Streets of Heaven is a much more manageable volume than most of the doorstoppers this author has composed, and it's the first in a new trilogy to boot — so I'm in, I think.

That said, The Dirty Streets of Heaven is outwardly urban fantasy; not exactly a bold new direction for Mr. Williams to take, yet certainly something different. To wit, I'm intrigued to see what, if anything, the talent behind some of the finest science fiction and fantasy in recent memory can bring to a genre I admit I've almost no interest in.

Jack Glass
by Adam Roberts

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 26/07/12
by Gollancz

Review Priority
5 (A Sure Thing)

The Blurb: Jack Glass is the murderer. That, at least, is quite transparent.

He has sliced a lethal swathe through known space. He is without pity or scruple. He is a killer.

Were the authorities ever to discover that it was actually Jack Glass that they had detained on a remote prison asteroid they would return and kill him immediately. And they will discover it. The murderer will have to escape. And that, of course, is impossible.

From a tiny asteroid in the far reaches of space, to a comfortable country house, to a sealed orbital habitat, Adam Roberts takes us on a spellbinding journey through a future that challenges all our notions of crime, punishment and freedom.

We know whodunnit. Now we must learn how... and why.

My Thoughts: I've only been reading Adam Roberts since Yellow Blue Tibia, I'm afraid - the time has never been quite right to dig in to his expansive back catalogue - but even by that standard, his last novel, By Light Alone, was absolutely remarkable. His latest, Jack Glass, is (according to the afterword) a contemporary interpretation of golden age detective fiction staged in a similarly period-appropriate sf setting.

And looking back from the halfway mark, it could be as brilliant as anything Roberts has written.

Jack Glass is three cunningly connected novellas, of which I've finished the first and started in on the second already. I'll be attending to the third as soon as humanly possible, because so far, Jack Glass has been great: if not as literary as most of Roberts' novels, then more immediately, and sometimes shockingly, rewarding. I'm to review this book for Tor.com, so stay tuned for the final word on this speculative mass murder mystery... soon.

by Jay Kristoff

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 13/09/12
by Tor

Review Priority
3 (We'll See)

The Blurb: Griffins are supposed to be extinct, so when Yukiko and her warrior father are sent to capture one for the Shōgun, they fear that their lives are over. Everyone knows what happens to those who fail him.
But the mission proves less impossible and more deadly than anyone expects. Soon Yukiko finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in her country's last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled griffin for company. Although she can hear his thoughts, and saved his life, all she knows for certain is he’d rather see her dead than help her. Yet trapped together in the forest, Yukiko and Buruu form a surprising and powerful bond.
Meanwhile, the country verges on collapse. A toxic fuel is choking the land, the machine-powered Lotus Guild is publicly burning those they deem Impure, and the Shōgun cares for nothing but his own dominion. Authority has always made Yukiko uneasy, but her world changes when she meets Kin, a young man with secrets, and the rebel Kagé cabal. She learns the horrifying extent of the Shōgun’s crimes, both against her country and her family. Returning to the city, Yukiko and Buruu are determined to make the Shōgun pay – but what can one girl and a flightless griffin do against the might of an empire?

My Thoughts: Strangely, though Stormdancer is the first first novel in this edition of The BoSS, it's the second of this week's books - after The Dirty Streets of Heaven - to bear a blurb by Patrick Rothfuss. Which is sure to shift a few units, and set certain expectations.

Looking past that, Stormdancer sounds uniquely interesting. Japanese steampunk, anyone? And if not, why not? Even if this is all that sets Jay Kristoff's debut apart, it might just be enough for me — I'll admit, I'm already intrigued.

Forge of Darkness
by Steven Erikson

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 31/07/12
by Bantam Press

Review Priority
4 (Pretty Bloody Likely)

The Blurb: Now is the time to tell the story of an ancient realm, a tragic tale that sets the stage for all the tales yet to come and all those already told...

It's a conflicted time in Kurald Galain, the realm of Darkness, where Mother Dark reigns. But this ancient land was once home to many a power. and even death is not quite eternal. The commoners' great hero, Vatha Urusander, is being promoted by his followers to take Mother Dark's hand in marriage, but her Consort, Lord Draconus, stands in the way of such ambitions. The impending clash sends fissures throughout the realm, and as the rumors of civil war burn through the masses, an ancient power emerges from the long dead seas. Caught in the middle of it all are the First Sons of Darkness, Anomander, Andarist, and Silchas Ruin of the Purake Hold...

Steven Erikson entered the pantheon of great fantasy writers with his debut Gardens of the Moon. Now he returns with the first novel in a trilogy that takes place millennia before the events of the Malazan Book of the Fallen and introduces readers to Kurald Galain, the warren of Darkness. It is the epic story of a realm whose fate plays a crucial role in shaping the world of the Malazan Empire.

My Thoughts: Well, well, well. A prequel trilogy, is it? To an epic fantasy saga that, if I maintain my current pace, I could be reading for the rest of my life?

That... sounds almost exactly like what the doctor ordered. :)

Forge of Darkness would be a sure thing, if it weren't for the fact that I'm afraid it stands to spoil what of the Malazan Book of the Fallen I haven't yet read, which is to say - to my eternal shame - most of the series. If someone out there could assure me that that won't happen, I'll jump right into this.

This week also brought a review copy of the unconnected Steven Erikson collection, The Devil Delivered, which I'll be reading in installments between bigger books. Talk about an embarrassment of riches — an embarrassment I'll suffer gladly!


And with that, The BoSS comes to a close once more. Who's pleased to see it again?

Until next time, then... wherever that may be, and when.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Book Review | The City's Son by Tom Pollock

Running from her traitorous best friend and her estranged father, graffiti artist Beth Bradley is looking for sanctuary. What she finds is Filius, the ragged and cocky crown prince of London’s mystical underworld. Filius opens Beth’s eyes to the city she’s never truly seen — where vast spiders crawl telephone wires seeking voices to steal, railwraiths escape their tethers, and statues conceal an ancient priesthood robed in bronze.

But it all teeters on the brink of destruction. Amid rumors that Filius’s goddess mother will soon return from her 15-year exile, Reach, a malign god of urban decay, wants the young prince dead. Helping Filius raise an alleyway army to reclaim his skyscraper throne, Beth soon forgets her old life. But when her best friend is captured, Beth must choose between this wondrous existence and the life she left behind.


"Thrum-clatter-clatter, thrum-clatter-clatter," (p.5) comes the sound of The City's Son: a syncopated siren song that I found positively impossible to resist.

The City's Son is a tour-de-force in sophisticated urban fantasy—beautifully wrought, tightly plotted and fantastically finessed. Shockingly, it's also Tom Pollock's first novel.

I had, however, read this fellow before, by way of a very memorable short in Stories of the Apocalypse, which is to say the first Pandemonium anthology edited by the peerless pair behind Pornokitsch. However, as impressed as I was with "Evacuation," it took The City's Son to properly sell me on Pollock's potential... which is to say world, meet the spiritual successor to early China Mieville.

A reductive recommendation, admittedly, but better to make it now and move on than dwell on the many and various ways in which The City's Son put me in mind of King Rat, Perdido Street Station and Kraken. Anyway, let's face it: before now there was no-one quite like Mr Mieville out there, and more of a good thing is good, surely.

But getting back to the matter at hand, note that the plot of The City's Son is not what makes it awesome. In fact, you'll have heard the broad strokes of it before, very probably over and over - in Neverwhere, Un Lun Dun and the books of The Folly by Ben Aaronovitch, to name but a few - but though the concept of a magical secret city under, above or amongst our London is fairly far from inspired, Pollock's execution of the premise is pitch-perfect. His city, his setting, seems so alive that it practically writhes. There's an army of living stone statues, a Mirrorstocracy of impermanent reflections, a gaggle of girls with glass skin, and a man, who is as often a woman, made out of rats and rubbish.

And that's just the good guys!

On the other side of the divide, beyond the glimmering limits of the light cast by the city's grey-skinned crown prince Filius: the forces of darkness. The gathering forces, I should say, for they are rising in name and number with the return of Reach, the Crane King. Amongst the hellish highlights, keep your eyes peeled for the scaffwolves - dog-monsters made of scaffolding poles -  and listen, listen, for the phantom rhythm of a railwraith, plowing past St Paul's, leaving only death and devastation in its wake.

Pollock's imagination is in its prime, then. And though the premise is pallid, the author enlivens it, invigorates it, with a cast of I dare say daring characters. There's Filius, for starters: an orphan in the care of the undercity itself, who wields a railway spike like a sacred spear yet knows next to nothing about London and life as we understand it. More relatable in that respect is our protagonist, Beth Bradley: a graffiti artist who takes to the streets after the death of her mother, the dazed abandonment of her father, and the devastating blow left by her best friend Pen's betrayal.

Speaking of which, with respect to Pen in particular, The City's Son takes some truly gruesome turns, so don't be dissuaded on account of all the young uns. This is bleak, black urban fantasy... some of the very best in the business, by a mile of city mice.

It comes complete with all the trimmings, too - some of which I grant are more surprising than others - including a sense of wonder-struck discovery, a light touch at times, and bona fide feeling. So ignore the superficial similarities we spoke about before, because in they end, their reach is only skin-deep. In a better world, this book would have The Hunger Games' great legacy ahead of it. Certainly, as of this first installment, the series deserves such success, but as Tom Pollock teaches, appearances can be deeply, darkly deceiving.

Come what may, The City's Son is stonking stuff. A year's best contender which marks the arrival of an unmissable new talent. Go on: get in on the ground floor of The Skyscraper Throne.


The City's Son
by Tom Pollock

UK Publication: August 2012, Jo Fletcher
US Publication: September 2012, Flux

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

Or get the Kindle edition 

Recommended and Related Reading

Thursday, 26 July 2012

About the Author | Meet Tom Pollock

I don't often talk about what's coming up on The Speculative Scotsman.

To do so is to make a promise to you fine folks that there's every chance I'll break, and obviously, that's not on. But today I'm going to make an exception, because tomorrow's content is, as they say, in the can. I know not what can. Or why one would can content in the first place — but there you go.

Anyway, tomorrow on TSS, I'm going to post my review of a speculative debut that impressed me tremendously: The City's Son by Tom Pollock. Not to toot the horn, but I've had a galley for many months, and keeping this piece under wraps for so long has been a matter of some consternation to yours truly, because this book... this book is something else. 

It's coming out a week from today here in the UK, and I'd urge anyone with a passing interest in urban fantasy to get their pre-orders in immediately. If there's any justice in our bookish corner of the blogosphere, you'll be hearing a whole lot more about The City's Son in the months to come.

Tomorrow, then, the review. So why I am blithering about it today?

That's because it was my immense pleasure to sit down with Tom Pollock, figuratively if alas not literally, to have a chat about who he is, how he got here, what his first book's all about, and various other subjects — all for the inaugural edition of About the Author. Which is to say a new feature here on TSS, which differs from the other interviews I've conducted on the blog because of its specific subject: namely new writers I really like the look of.

Also, it's intended to be a series both short and sweet — by my standards, at least.

Enough introduction. Let's get to this thing!


Good day to you, Tom Pollock.

And a very good day to you, Niall Alexander.

So, first things first: tell us a little bit about yourself, sir. For those folks not yet in the know, who are you, and what are you doing on The Speculative Scotsman? 

I’m an urban fantasy novelist, a book hoover and a dispenser of what I’m told are excellent hugs from a man of my size.

How would you describe your debut?

Probably the most urban fantasy you’ve ever read.

First novels are obviously ten-a-penny. Now don’t get me wrong: I’ve read yours, and I tend to think it’s something special — hence the questions. But what do you think makes your debut distinct?

Not sure I agree with the ten-a-penny assertion — there’s a wave of debuts now for sure, but I’ve read a lot of them and they mostly had something interesting going on.

As for The City’s Son, I’d say it’s the slantwise look it takes at London, the way it restores the sense of the weird (and The Weird) under the brick and concrete. I’ve had a couple of early readers tell me it’s made them afraid of cranes.

As far as advance reaction goes, I’ll take that.

How did it come about, anyway? What was the initial spark behind The City’s Son?

The initial spark was a feeling more than an idea. The City’s Son is supposed to be a dark ‘just-so’ story for the city, so you can look at ordinary things: streetlamps coming on at dusk, trains stopping and waiting mid-journey, and there’s this whole creation mythology for why that happens. I think I made this stuff up because I felt an emotional connection to London that went beyond what you think you’d feel for a collection of streets and buildings. I wanted to cast it in terms of a metaphor that made sense of that.

Going back a bit farther: have you always been a fan of speculative fiction?

Always. I think my Mum must’ve watched the Ralf Bakshi Lord of The Rings when she was pregnant. My passion for non-existent things started early and continues unabated, especially monsters, magic doors and anything to do with dark mirror-images. As a kid I was crazy for Jekyll and Hyde, or the thing Sparrowhawk lets loose in A Wizard of Earthsea. (I still am).

What would you say to people who think “genre” is a dirty word?

I suppose I’d say you either have a genre taxonomy to help you understand literature or you don’t, and either way is fine, but if you do think in genre terms then surely every book should be in at least one genre? Genres are continents on a map, and at the moment the cartographers are telling us that a bunch of countries don’t have a continent because they’re special. I think the map just needs redrawing.

Are there any particular authors who have been an inspiration to you and/or your work?

Tons. Dozens. The acknowledgements to The City’s Son lists Alan Garner, China Mieville, David Almond, Neil Gaiman and Patrick Ness, but that’s just the tip of the Star Destroyer. Ursula Le Guin’s an inspiration, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Garth Nix, Tolkein, Frank Herbert. If I hadn’t read any one of these authors, the books I write would be worse for it.

I know it’s an impossible question, but I’m going to ask it anyway. What’s your favourite book, and why?

Oh… Christ. Um. Ok, tempting as it is to go for something clever and obscure, I’m going to say The Lord of The Rings.

Why? Because it’s got a conviction to it I’ve never seen matched. The effect of the language and maps and the density of the thought in Middle Earth combine to make a story I found it impossible not to believe in. I think World Building’s become a bit of a dirty word in fantasy recently. I’d like it back please.

Moving on, where are you from, and how do you think that’s factored into your fiction.

London. Every way and every how.

And what do you do for a living, Tom, when you’re not making stuff up? Has your past or present employment in any sense shaped the way you work?

Right now I help build very big ships. I don’t know if that’s impacted the writing overly much to be honest. Although I wouldn’t rule out a tankerpunk story in the future.

Have you always thought of yourself as an author? Was that the end goal from the beginning, I wonder, or was there something else you wanted to be when you were little?

Oh when I was little enough I wanted to be a beetle, then a superhero, then a ghost, then for a brief period I wanted to be all three. When I decided I wanted to be a writer I felt I’d taken a step forward in my ambitions, that this was a grown up thing to want. My Dad didn’t agree so much.

Now that your book’s very nearly here, the long, hard road to publication is a fearfully easy thing to gloss over, but before my point’s entirely moot, might I ask how you went about breaking in? Was it as long and as hard as all that?

Not for me, but I got very lucky. I wrote a book, polished it up and started querying. The agent and then the editors who happened to deeply connect with my work happened to see it early. It could have taken much longer.

One thing I would say though, it never hurts to come to cons and meet people. If nothing else it’s a good way to make friends who like the same stuff as you, and good things often come of that.

How about when you realised your dream was about to be realised. Tell me about that moment.

My new editor took me out for lunch. I’m a clutz and when surprised I have a tendency to fumble whatever I’m holding - in this case a bowl of steaming miso soup. There were tears, tears of joy, yes, but also of scalding.

So how are you holding up in the run-up to release week? What are you most looking forward to, and is there anything you’re particularly dreading?

I’m doing okay, I’m looking forward to the launch (I’m reading, and it’s always fun to simulate the sound of a train-wreck with the back of my throat). I’m mostly dreading the launch. In case no-one comes :)

Do you maintain a social media presence? If so, how has that affected your work ethic?

I mess around on Twitter quite a bit, and update my blog with alarming irregularity. Mostly whenever I have something vaguely theory-driven or academic to say. My work ethic is close to indestructible, owing to the fact that it’s so small and ephemeral it’s virtually at the quantum level anyway so you can’t break it down any further.

How important do you think blogs are in terms of getting the good word about your book and the work of other new authors out there?

I have no idea. My best guess is it’s a big component of word of mouth in the bookish world, but their influence will be indirect and not always obvious.

So what’s next for you, Tom? Where do you see yourself in a year?

Next up is the sequel. The Glass Republic is due in October and should be out this time next year. I’m about halfway through writing it and it’s a very weird book. The main character’s one of the supporting ones from The City’s Son, and she’s been a blast to write.

I first came across your name in the fantastic Pandemonium anthology, edited by the wonderful pair behind Pornokitsch, but besides that and The City’s Son, have you had any other work published? If so, where might the good folks find it?

Nope, that’s it for me! I’m not a prolific short story writer. I love and admire them when I read them, and every now and then I get an idea for one, but by and large I’m a long-form kinda guy.

Alas, this inaugural edition of About the Author is drawing to a close, but before I let you off the hook, how can people keep up to speed with all things Tom Pollock?

Best way is probably on my twitter @tomhpollock (what the H stands for is a state secret in eighteen countries). If you’ve got an RSS feed you could add my blog www.tompollock.com, especially if you like random musing essays and Polar Bears.

Last but not least: tell me something about yourself that no-one knows.

Oh, go on! I don’t know about these guys, but I can keep a secret. :)

It’s not something no-one knows, but I spend every eighth week on 24 call out notice in case of pirate attack.

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Tom. I’m sure we can all agree, getting to know you a little bit better has been an absolute pleasure.

Cheers dude!


So how did everyone like that?

Do pop on over to Tom's blog, or follow the fellow on Twitter, if you want to hear more from this extraordinarily promising up-and-coming author.

Meanwhile, if you fancy a few more of these features... say so!

Last but not least, remember to stay tuned to The Speculative Scotsman for my review of The City's Son tomorrow. Spoiler alert: I think it's pretty brilliant.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

But I Digress | The I in IMAX

I used to go to the movies all the time — at least once a month, if not every couple of weeks, to see what I could see.

This year, I've been to the cinema all of... two times. I saw Cabin in the Woods, and I saw Prometheus. I enjoyed both experiences immensely... though I think I would have been fine waiting to rent a copy of the former film.

And why is that, I wonder? What did the movies mean to me that they don't any more?

I suppose it's something to do with the inherent spectacle of cinema. The experience of being taken in by a film. But then, I didn't always have a sweet series six Samsung to watch movies on at home, nor the surround sound setup that I take for granted today. Either that's what's changed, or I have.

Though I suspect the whole truth is that it's a bit of both.

Because I certainly don't like opening nights. These days, there's nothing quite as likely to spoil a trip to the pictures for me than the sweaty, noisy, nacho-slathered mass of fellow film-goers that one can hardly avoid on opening nights. The inappropriate sniggering. The conversations you can't help but overhear during quiet moments.

The farts!

So on those increasingly rare occasions when I feel like I need to see something at the cinema - because I'll have to wait four more months if I opt not to - I'll wait at least a week. Often longer. And in that time, any number of things can happen to put me off: I can read one too many negative reviews, or be spoiled by some sadistic soul, or outside of all that, obligations have a habit of coming up right when I wish they wouldn't.

Which is why I still haven't seen The Avengers. Or The Hunger Games. Despite having planned to take both films in at the pictures.

I won't - and I haven't - let that happen with The Dark Knight Rises. Batman Begins might have been a bit mince - fun in a silly sort of way - but The Dark Knight was and is one of my very favourite films ever, and I have faith in Chris Nolan to conclude this trilogy more meaningfully than in the movie it began with.

Long story short, I've been avoiding potential spoilers all week. I haven't, as yet, read a single review. And I think it's safe to say that by now, the farters have come and gone.

Or at least, that's the dream.

But the dream, for me, has taken on a different form than it has in the past, because given how significant spectacle is in terms of my interest in cinema, and the fact that there isn't another film I can imagine myself being this excited to see due for a period of years, for the first time in my life, I've booked tickets to the IMAX. To see The Dark Knight Rises.

And do you know, I don't even know what IMAX is!

My best guess? It's big cinema. And I'm expecting big things from this film. So it sort of follows.

But I really have no idea what to expect otherwise, and there are truly few things as thrilling to a jaded old man like myself as that. To wit: woo!

I'll report back on my inaugural IMAX experience in the comments a little later, or else in my review of The Dark Knight Rises. In advance of that, though, what about you guys? I want to know.

Do you, for instance, go to the cinema as often as you used to do? If not, why not? What's changed?

Meanwhile, who's seen something at the IMAX? Did it add anything to the essential experience, in your opinion, or ruin the movie for you?

We'll talk again shortly!

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Book Review | Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce

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

For twenty years after Tara Martin disappeared from her small English town, her parents and her brother, Peter, have lived in denial of the grim fact that she was gone for good. And then suddenly, on Christmas Day, the doorbell rings at her parents' home and there, disheveled and slightly peculiar looking, Tara stands. It's a miracle, but alarm bells are ringing for Peter. Tara's story just does not add up. And, incredibly, she barely looks a day older than when she vanished.

Award-winning author Graham Joyce is a master of exploring new realms of understanding that exist between dreams and reality, between the known and unknown. Some Kind of Fairy Tale is a unique journey every bit as magical as its title implies, and as real and unsentimental as the world around us.


Twenty years ago, after a falling out with her besotted boyfriend, teenager Tara Martin went into the Outwoods to take solace in their special spot, and gather her thoughts. She could hardly have picked a more beguiling backdrop for a vanishing act if she'd tried.
"The Outwoods was one of the last remaining pockets of ancient forest from which Charnwood took its name. It nestled at the spot where the three counties of Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire almost  touched, and seemed neither to belong to nor take its character from any of them. It was an eerie place, swinging between sunlight and damp, flaring light and shadow; a venue of twisted trees, its volcanic slopes of ash and granite ruptured by mysterious outcropping crags of the very oldest rocks in Britain." (p.12)
When it emerges that Tara isn't coming back, suspicion falls upon her sweetheart, but Richie maintains his innocence to the hilt, despite some strictly circumstantial evidence to the contrary. Desperate to close the case, however, the police are dogged in their determination that Richie did it, pursuing him to the point that his close friendship with the whole of the Martin family - especially his best pal Peter - becomes too painful to sustain.

Twenty years later, the world has moved on — for everyone except Richie, whose loss has ruled if not outright ruined his life. So when Tara turns up on her folks' doorstep, aged nary a day and bearing a tall tale about fairies instead of an actual reason for her sudden disappearance, it's a shock to the system to say the least. Nobody knows what to think... not even her shrink.
"Clearly the narrative has been constructed to make sense of some overwhelming experience — but at the moment we have no clues as to what the experience might have been. Until we are able to locate any organic foundation for the amnesia and confabulation we will proceed with an psychological investigation underpinned by an understanding of the needs of the confabulator." (p.160)
Presented as journal entries composed for potential publication at a later date, Dr. Underwood's occasional perspective serves several purposes simultaneously in Some Kind of Fairy Tale. In the first, his sessions with "TM" function as a neat and natural way to tease out this two-pronged parable, because rather than frontloading the fiction with two worlds’ worth of exposition, the author best known for Memoirs of a Master Forger threads Tara's metaphor-laden vacation to fairyland through the entirety of a more practical framing narrative, concerned in the main with the real world repercussions of her return. In addition to generating meaningful momentum, this approach instigates a sense of tension that the novel is never again absent, as one can only wonder what happens next, and what, in the interim, has been withheld.

Not to mention why. Nor, crucially, by whom. Because from an early stage - in point of fact, from the first page - we're warned, though not actually informed, that "everything depends on who is telling the story. It always does," (p.1) and in Some Kind of Fairy Tale, there are no easy answers.

Which is not to say the narrative is unsatisfying. On the contrary, Joyce's habit of refusing obvious conclusions is one of his latest's greatest successes. By stopping just short of solving all the novel’s possible problems, the author invites us to read between the lines... to unpick the almighty puzzle of Tara's absence. In that respect Some Kind of Fairy Tale comes together wonderfully, presuming you're prepared to do a little of the lifting yourself.

Ultimately, uncertainty seems to be Some Kind of Fairy Tale's stock in trade, so it's fitting that both the form and the content of Underwood's aforementioned interludes work to compound this conception. As a man of science, of fact rather than fantasy, his quest is to systematically discredit Tara's increasingly unlikely account of the twenty years she's short. The effect of his scepticism, then, is to balance out her belief, thus the reader can't take anything on trust, from anyone — least of all the novel's narrator, whomsoever he - or she - may be.

It's a terrific touch, and perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the entire, after the fact, but Graham Joyce's hypnotic new novel has much more going for it than the slow burn of its seductive structure. On the sentence level, say, Some Kind of Fairy Tale seems simple - indeed, it makes for a few evenings’ easy reading - yet the prose boasts an ominous undercurrent: a suggestion, made ever so softly, that there’s more to the tale (and its telling) than we’re aware.
"You have no idea [...] None of you. There is a veil to this world, thin as smoke, and it draws back occasionally and when it does we can see incredible things. Incredible things." (p.190)
This short novel is a pleasure in terms of character, too. Richie is a classic case of arrested development, meanwhile Peter’s mature, and mostly level-headed. How these old friends relate to one another as after two decades as accidental enemies is immediately engaging, and uncannily convincing; as are Tara’s tragicomic struggles to grips with the modern world she’s returned to. Last, and perhaps least, as diverting as his perspective is, Peter’s moody but well-meaning son Jack has surprisingly little impact on the narrative, though his chapters offer a certain sideways insight into the novel’s most perplexing events.

In sum, Some Kind of Fairy Tale is fantastically formed, complete with a portentous premise, a marvellous cast of characters, and a narrative as smart and self-reflexive as it is at first old-fashioned. It’s a little slow in the going, I suppose, and its magic - its mystery - is essentially ineffable, but hold open your imagination for a moment and you'll fall under its spell as well. Enigmatic and intellectual, yet readily accessible and massively satisfying, Joyce’s latest is a joy.


This review was originally published, in a slightly altered form, on Tor.com


Some Kind of Fairy Tale
by Graham Joyce

UK Publication: June 2012, Gollancz
US Publication: July 2012, Doubleday

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

Recommended and Related Reading

Friday, 20 July 2012

Book Review | The Silver Bough by Lisa Tuttle

Appleton is a small town nestled on the coast of Scotland. Though it was once famous for the apples it produced, these days it's a shadow of its former self. But in a hidden orchard a golden apple dangles from a silver bough, an apple believed lost for ever.

The apple is part of a legend, promising either eternal happiness to the young couple who eat from it secure in their love — or a curse, for those who take its gift for granted.

Now, as the town teeters on the edge of decline, the old rituals have been forgotten and the mists are rolling in. And in the mist, something is stirring...


It's been a long while since we last heard from Lisa Tuttle. After a prolific period in the nineties and early noughties, the award-winning author appears to have gone to ground, and though The Silver Bough has only recently been released here in the UK, it was made available in the United States six years ago. So it's not a new novel... nor does it feel especially fresh.

What The Silver Bough is, on the other hand, is beautiful — particularly this edition of it, with its gorgeous adornment. More notably, I suppose, The Silver Bough's setting is obscenely appealing. Meanwhile its premise is all poise; its characters are undeniably attractive; and Tuttle's prose is almost criminally pretty.

But beauty, as they say, is only skin deep, and beneath the surface, The Silver Bough is a disappointingly noncommittal novel: a modern-day fable about a magical apple that doesn't go far enough, or fast enough. It's perfectly pleasant - easy reading for a few evenings - but a touch overblown, and problematically paced, I'm afraid.

As to that last, the lion's share of the blame can be shared between the three main narrators, all of whom, oddly enough, are Americans living in - or in one case visiting - a remote village in the north of Scotland.

There's the librarian, Kathleen, whose interest in Appleton's history leads to some strange revelations. Then there's the granddaughter of the last Apple Queen: Ashley has come to the country to fill out her family tree, though she secretly hopes to meet a hunkish Highlander while she's here. Last but not least we have Nell, a lonely soul whose only goal is to turn her back garden into an orchard. Little does she know that the key to the village's uncertain future is growing on one of her trees.

Once upon a time - for so this story goes - Appleton was a place famous for the fruit from which it takes its name, but now "the old orchards are gone; the Apple Fair hasn't been held in decades, and everyone has forgotten the real reason behind it. But the magic is still here, deep in the land — and the land knows. Every so often, it offers up a magical gift. The last time, that gift was rejected, and things began to go wrong." (p.254-5) Unless events develop differently on this occasion, Appleton is apt to fall to ruin forever.

The Silver Bough's fantastic last act may be too little, too late for some readers, but for what it's worth, the tale itself resolves relatively well.

My problems, in any event, were with the telling. Kathleen, Ashley and Nell are all outsiders, to a greater or lesser extent, thus the angle they offer on Appleton and its interesting inhabitants is curiously askew. Never mind that their perspectives aren't remotely representative: oftentimes, they're too busy remarking on how wonderfully quaint rural living is to focus on more meaningful matters... for instance the narrative.

Entire chapters pass without incident. Then, when something of note does go down, it's almost always glossed over, the better to get back to what Tuttle is interested in above all else: idling. Which is to say calmly taking in the sights and sounds of what is, admittedly, a pleasant, picturesque place.

The Silver Bough is not a bad novel at all — only disappointing. Some memorable moments - foremost amongst them a creepy encounter with several generations of ancients - are sure to stay with you long after the last chapter. In the interim, the prose is powerful, and the setting is simply tremendous; if this beguiling book doesn't sell you on Scotland, I don't know what will. What frustrates, finally, is that The Silver Bough is only a good book, when it could have been - or should have been, given Tuttle's talents - a truly great text.


The Silver Bough
by Lisa Tuttle

UK Publication: July 2012, Jo Fletcher Books
US Publication: December 2006, Spectra

Recommended and Related Reading

Thursday, 19 July 2012

You Tell Me | Getting In On Outlander

Via Deadline, Dark Horizons - my go-to source for movie news and reviews - reports than Battlestar Galactica and Carnivale showrunner Ron Moore is set to adapt Diana Gabaldon's bestselling Outlander fantasy saga into a series for cable TV.

I first heard this news on Tuesday, but it came up again yesterday, and then for a third time today. So that's the charm, and I simply had to ask: should I be paying more attention to Diana Gabaldon than I am?

For once, I can tell you exactly why I've steered clear of her work before now, though I'd be the first to admit my reasons apply only to me. Quite simply, I've never read Diana Gabaldon because, for all the wrong reasons - at least from my particular position - my mum used to love these books. Given the chance, she'd go on and on about Claire and Jamie, long past the point that everyone had started idly pushing their cuticles, and I got the distinct sense that she was reading the Outlander saga for the romance, rather than the fantasy.

Which was - and is - perfectly fine, but not what I was interested in either then, or now.

Methinks reason number two is more damning. You see, at some point, my mum went from an attitude of undying devotion to the series to one of utter disinterest. I think A Breath of Snow and Ashes put her off her coffee, because she still hasn't read An Echo in the Bone, nor - and I've asked her - does she plan to. Presumably six books of will-they/won't-they sexual tension was as she had in her... which I can kind of get behind.

But if I'm honest, I've never been able to determine if there's more to this series than that. So in light of the Ron Moore news, you tell me, good people: is the Outlander saga any good? Are its early novels self-contained and satisfying enough that I could read Diana Gabaldon's debut without feeling compelled to continue on, ad infinitum? Because that's what I'm inclined to do, assuming my mum isn't completely out of her wheelhouse on this one.

Meanwhile, who's keen to see a cable TV adaptation of the epic tale? And from the man behind the divisive modern-day interpretation of Battlestar Galactica, no less.

Is Ron Moore a good choice to bring this story into our living rooms, do you think, or are alarm bells ringing with anyone else?

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Coming Attractions | River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

I'm not often one to jump on the cover art bandwagon, and most of the usual suspects have covered this particular image to death already... but for Guy Gavriel Kay? I'll make an exception.

After the news that Kay's next novel will be a kinda sorta sequel to his last - at least insofar as it marks a return to Under Heaven's invented setting, four centuries on - we have an early look at the front cover and flap copy of the US edition of River of Stars, which is due out, as I understand it, in early 2013.

Firstly, here's the new shiny looking all lovely alongside its pretty predecessor:

A perfect fit, aren't they?

And we have a blurb to boot:
"In his critically acclaimed novel Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay told a vivid and powerful story inspired by China’s Tang Dynasty. Now, the international bestselling and multiple award-winning author revisits that invented setting four centuries later with an epic of prideful emperors, battling courtiers, bandits and soldiers, nomadic invasions, and a woman battling in her own way, to find a new place for women in the world – a world inspired this time by the glittering, decadent Song Dynasty.

"Ren Daiyan was still just a boy when he took the lives of seven men while guarding an imperial magistrate of Kitai. That moment on a lonely road changed his life—in entirely unexpected ways, sending him into the forests of Kitai among the outlaws. From there he emerges years later—and his life changes again, dramatically, as he circles towards the court and emperor, while war approaches Kitai from the north.

"Lin Shan is the daughter of a scholar, his beloved only child. Educated by him in ways young women never are, gifted as a songwriter and calligrapher, she finds herself living a life suspended between two worlds. Her intelligence captivates an emperor—and alienates women at the court. But when her father’s life is endangered by the savage politics of the day, Shan must act in ways no woman ever has.

"In an empire divided by bitter factions circling an exquisitely cultured emperor who loves his gardens and his art far more than the burdens of governing, dramatic events on the northern steppe alter the balance of power in the world, leading to events no one could have foretold, under the river of stars."
So. Sounds good. Sounds very good. But then... what Guy Gavriel Kay novel has not?
In all honesty, I'm unsure how to feel about River of Stars. I mean, I enjoyed Under Heaven a great deal, but of all the Kay I've read - five novels and counting, now - it's probably the least meaningful to me. I can't help but wonder, why revisit this world, instead of any of the others I'd be over the moon at the prospect of returning to?
But who am I to question to wisdom of such a master craftsman? At the very least, I'm sure River of Stars will be a shoe-in for contention amongst the best books of next year, and I'll be excited to see it. I just... I wish Kay was innovating - creating wonderful new worlds for us to lose ourselves in - rather than retreading familiar territory.

That's my two cents, anyway. But how do you fine folks feel about the recent announcement of River of Stars? Who amongst you, I wonder, has been clamouring for a return to the shimmering milieu of Under Heaven?

Monday, 16 July 2012

Comic Book Review | Dollhouse Vol. I: Epitaphs

"Did I fall asleep?"

"For a little while."

A familiar refrain, the recent repetition of which - much to my surprise - made my goddamn day.

Let's begin with a quantity of that rarest commodity: honesty. For a brief period, I thought Dollhouse was awesome. Right through to the provocative first season finale, I was all for Joss Whedon's most recent TV series — even the sad fact that it was over was alright, considering how magnificently it had ended.

Except, as it happened, it hadn't ended. It wasn't over, after all. Because at the very last second, after the showrunners had closed the door on any suggestion of a sensible second season with was essentially an epilogue, optimistic execs brought Dollhouse back from the precipice. Its unlikely renewal meant that the overarching narrative, so smartly concluded in the episode "Epitaph One," had to find some way forward, or else test the patience of even its most dedicated viewers - of which I was one - by backtracking.

Instead, the second season of Dollhouse did both things... badly. This batch of episodes went so far, so fast, and so suddenly beyond the bounds of the first season's remit that it seemed like a completely different series. You couldn't help but suspect the writers were playing fast and loose with a mythology they no longer had a handle on. If I could unwatch it, mark my words: I would. 

Long story short, I was sweet on Dollhouse for a year, but its mishandled second season left me with a sour taste in my mouth. So it came as something of a shock to realise how happy I would be to hear the exchange with which we began again. I wasn't even aware there was a way for me to do so, short of rewatching the first season, until, quite by chance, I came across Epitaphs: the first - and thus far I fear the only - volume of a comic book continuation of the cancelled TV series, along the selfsame lines as Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8, and involving some of the selfsame talent, including Andrew Chambliss and Joss Whedon's little brother Jed.

Epitaphs collects the complete five issue miniseries of the same name, as well as the one-shot prelude from the season two Blu-ray box-set. The action occurs after the events of the series, in an LA decimated by Dollhouse technology. The signal pioneered by the Rossum Corporation has gone viral, turning anyone who hears it into an automaton, open to instructions, up to and including orders to spread the signal ever further.

In amidst this apocalyptic chaos, we find what you might call a chaotic mind: the schizophrenic Alpha has been imprinted with so many personalities that the constant struggle to keep them in check - especially the wicked ones that want nothing so much as to stab folks in the faces - has left him as weak as any mere mortal. But when Alpha meets Trevor, a young boy reeling from the loss of his family, he sees that he can do good, too. Together, Alpha, Trevor, and the Ivys - a single rebel who has imprinted her personality upon multiple minds (and bodies, obviously) - together, they resolve to root out Eliza Dushku's Echo, who may be able to help them turn the tide against the Rossum Corporation.

Meanwhile, Felicia Day. That's really all I want to say.

These concurrent narrative arcs do come together eventually, but for the longest time I couldn't be bothered with the scenes starring her character. Perhaps Mag will play an important role in future Dollhouse comics, however in Epitaphs her pages are basically wasted space. Fan service, of a sort.

But that's the only complaint I want to make about Epitaphs, and it's really no big deal. On the whole, this is a great graphic novel. It's better paced and markedly more interesting than the second season of the ill-fated TV series, and its closing moments suggest a return to the fantastic form of the first. Returning characters, too, ring true, and those newbies introduced in Epitaphs - like Trevor - sit neatly alongside the likes of Echo and Alpha. I particularly enjoyed the interplay between the aforementioned Ivys.

Joss Whedon's actual involvement in this comic book may be minimal, especially compared to Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8, but in its appealing cast, their smart, snappy banter, and the self-aware sense of humour that elevates even the most minor events above and beyond the banal, his geek-lord legacy is nonetheless felt.

I'm actually shocked at how much I enjoyed Epitaphs. I had not known that I missed this world, yet these characters and the "thoughtpocalypse" they find themselves embroiled in are as compelling to me as ever they were. Now that I've finished with this first volume of the TV series' continuation in comic book form, I can only hope that its creators come together again — and the sooner, the better!

Friday, 13 July 2012

Book Review | Caliban's War by James S. A. Corey

We are not alone.

On Ganymede, breadbasket of the outer planets, a Martian marine watches as her platoon is slaughtered by a monstrous supersoldier. On Earth, a high-level politician struggles to prevent interplanetary war from reigniting. And on Venus, an alien protomolecule has overrun the planet, wreaking massive, mysterious changes and threatening to spread out into the solar system.

In the vast wilderness of space, James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante have been keeping the peace for the Outer Planets Alliance. When they agree to help a scientist search war-torn Ganymede for a missing child, the future of humanity rests on whether a single ship can prevent an alien invasion that may have already begun...


In Caliban's War, the planet Ganymede is frequently referred to as the "breadbasket" of the galaxy. For generations, it has provided a crucial foothold for humanity's expansion into the stars. It's like an oasis in the desert: no-one owns it exactly, but everybody needs it equally. Its practical value, then, is unparalleled, and its political capital is accordingly incalculable, so when things on Ganymede go suddenly sideways because of a firefight between opposing forces and a single apparently alien interloper, all of the major powers from across the vastness of The Expanse take a stance.

Some see a grave threat. Others, an opportunity for untold profit. However, with all-out hostilities in the offing, one potty-mouthed politician finds herself fighting for peace. "Caught up in this smaller, human struggle of war and influence and the tribal division between Earth and Mars," (p.383) not to mention the noncommittal Alliance of Outer Planets, Chrisjen Avasarala - assistant to the UN's undersecretary of executive administration - is one of three new narrators introduced in Caliban's War, and she will have a pivotal part to play in the coming months.

In the interim, brilliantly, she's going to swear like a sailor.

Meanwhile, on Ganymede itself, we meet a disparate pair of POV characters. Gunnery Sergeant Roberta Draper - Bobbie to her friends and fellow Martian Marines - is the sole survivor of the gruesome ground war that sparked the space battles which rage in the fire-speckled skies. Haunted by the things she saw, she's shipped off to Earth to tell her incredible tale, where she finds an unlikely ally in Avasarala.

And then there's Prax, an unassuming scientist whose immunocompromised daughter is kidnapped during the planet-wide panic that follows the first shots. Our estranged single father is heartbroken, but pragmatic: Prax understands that "he and Mei were a pebble in space. They didn't signify." (p.108)

To one man, though, they matter — perhaps more than anything else. That would be the captain of the Rocinante, James Holden, and for spoileriffic reasons I'd really rather not get into, his is the only returning perspective from the inaugural act of The Expanse. The other half of that equation, Detective Miller, is much missed over the course of Caliban's War, and though his presence is certainly felt, his actual, factual absence from the narrative gives this second salvo a fairly different flavour from the first.

Caliban's War picks up roughly a year after the shocking climax of Leviathan Wakes, with humanity reeling from the revelation that we are not, after all, alone. Somewhere out there an alien intelligence exists, and our species’ situation has slipped from bad to worse, because it doesn’t mean to make nice with its new neighbours.

Ever since the events on Venus, Holden and his crew - namely Naomi, Alex and Amos - have been running odd jobs for the OPA, and the dirty work they've been doing has taken a toll on all involved, though the captain most notably. "He'd turned into the man [Naomi] feared he was becoming. Just another Detective Miller, dispensing frontier justice from the barrel of his gun." (p.352)

Inasmuch as this frequent fear cheapens the legacy of a fantastic character, it also serves to add a compelling dimension to Holden's formerly one-note nature, and the other crew members of the Rocinante are decently developed as well. The child abuse involved in Prax's narrative strikes a surprising chord with Amos; Alex kinda falls for Bobbie; and Naomi is no longer so sure about her feelings for Holden.

The real meat of this superb sequel lies elsewhere, however. With Avasarala - who shines an unflattering light on the politics of tomorrow - and Prax in particular, who offers insight into the family of the future and a layman's slant on the sprawling galaxy of The Expanse. I'm afraid that Bobbie, beyond her involvement in the battle which kicks off Caliban's War, seems something of a spare part, but Prax and Avasarala give this sf series a new lease on life, demonstrating the setting’s inestimable potential at the same time as realising a few of its most fascinating aspects.

Caliban's War can also lay claim to a powerful sense of momentum thanks to its co-authors' impressive storytelling diversity. When the book's four perspectives resolve into two greater tales, and then these two become one, the impulse to pump your fists in pleasure is almost irresistible. The pace is breakneck from the start, and though Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck run into a touch of trouble trying to sustain said for all 600 pages of this unstoppable object, by and large it gets exponentially faster. Markedly harder. I’d go so far as to say better — and Caliban's War is pretty brilliant to begin with.

Which is not to say our allied authors don't miss the mark occasionally. There's Bobbie, obviously. But you should also be aware that there's some rather tiresome dialogue in the cards, as well as an overabundance of laughably transparent politics, and a couple of at best cartoonishly characterised bad guys. Last but not least, Caliban's War attempts to reproduce one of the most memorable moments of Leviathan Wakes, but the hellish descent our refreshed cast of characters must make is substantially less impactful that it once was.

In a sense, then, Caliban's War is more of the same, but the same good thing, it bears saying. And thanks in no small part to the perspectives of Prax and Avasarala, and the new angles on this universe they offer, it's different enough from its predecessor to stand apart, if not alone — some knowledge of book one is practically a prerequisite. That said, last year's Leviathan Wakes got this action-packed series off to a stellar start, so if you haven't read it already... well.

Profoundly affecting and intellectually stimulating space opera The Expanse is not, but space rock, as exemplified by Caliban's War, is at least as awesome. Bring on the encore performance!


This post was originally published, in a slightly altered form, on Tor.com.


Caliban's War
by James S. A. Corey
UK & US Publication: June 2012, Orbit

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

Recommended and Related Reading