Friday, 31 August 2012

Book Review | Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

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Or get the Kindle edition 

"I will tell you a story, but it comes with a warning: when you hear it, you will become someone else."

He calls himself Alif - few people know his real name - a young man born in a Middle Eastern city that straddles the ancient and modern worlds. When Alif meets the aristocratic Intisar, he believes he has found love. But their relationship has no future—Intisar is promised to another man and her family's honour must be satisfied. As a remembrance, Intisar sends the heartbroken Alif a mysterious book. Entitled The Thousand and One Days, Alif discovers that this parting gift is a door to another world—a world from a very different time, when old magic was in the ascendant and the djinn walked amongst us.

With the book in his hands, Alif finds himself drawing attention - far too much attention - from both men and djinn. Thus begins an adventure that takes him through the crumbling streets of a once-beautiful city, to uncover the long-forgotten mysteries of the Unseen. Alif is about to become a fugitive in both the corporeal and incorporeal worlds. And he is about to unleash a destructive power that will change everything and everyone—starting with Alif himself.


"G. Willow Wilson was living in Egypt when she started writing Alif the Unseen in 2010. The fictional revolution in the book became a reality in Spring 2011 when ordinary people across many Middle Eastern countries rose up against their rules."

So reads the press release that accompanied my copy of G. Willow Wilson's tour-de-force debut, giving great weight to this exquisite tale of tales wherein a young man from an unnamed emirate comes into possession of an ancient text long thought lost, codes from its pages a program that could change the way we see the world, and becomes, finally, a figurehead in the fight against corruption in the government — all in the name of love.


Love is at the heart of Alif the Unseen. Love is what makes it so very special. In the first, Alif's love for Intisar, a princess of sorts to his digitally literate street rat. They've been seeing one another for many a moon, as of the outset; courting, of course, in a clandestine sense. But when Intisar is promised to a man closer to her social stature than the grey hat (read hacker) who has fallen for her, their affair comes to a crushing conclusion.

In the aftermath, all Alif has left of the love of his life is the Alf Yeom, literally The Thousand and One Days: a book of stories that is "the inverse, the overturning" (p.96) of The Thousand and One Nights, purportedly written not by people, but magical creatures.

And in the margins, Intisar's fascinating annotations:
The suggestion that the Alf Yeom is the work of a djinn is surely a curious one. The Quran speaks of the hidden people in the most candid way, yet more and more the educated faithful will not admit to believing in them, however readily they might accept even the harshest and most obscure points of Islamic law. That God has ordained that a thief must pay for his crime with his hand, that a woman must inherit half of what a man inherits — these things are treated not only as facts, but as obvious facts, whereas the existence of conscious beings we cannot see - and all the fantastic and wondrous things that their existence suggests and makes possible - produces profound discomfort among precisely that cohort of Muslims most lauded for their role in that religious "renaissance" presently expected by western observers: young degree-holding traditionalists. Yet how hollow rings a tradition in which the law, which is subject to interpretation, is held as sacrosanct, yet the word of God is not to be trusted when it comes to His description of what He has created.

I do not know what I believe. (p.104)
Intisar's crisis of faith is but the impetus behind the majestic vision quest Alif embarks on thereafter: the outcome is still a ways away. And would that it were still further, for this is a fantastic first novel!

I should stress that G. Willow Wilson has been published in the past. In 2010, The Butterfly Mosque - a memoir about her conversion to Islam - attracted an array of acclaim, and her name will be fairly familiar to comic book fans: she scripted the late, lamented Vertigo series AIRMystic for Marvel, and her credits also include a couple of fill-in issues for Superman. So Wilson isn't averse to a little seeming silliness, nor to more inwardly meaningful matters, such as class, censorship, fear and belief. In Alif the Unseen, she takes the high road and the low, trading on both areas of expertise to create a story about stories that stands out from the first word.

That said, the Alif is both more and less than a word. It is the first letter of Sura Al Baqara in the Quran; it is the first line of code ever written; it is a state of mind, a suggestion, a symbol that our hero becomes - inasmuch as it becomes him - over the course of this remarkable fantasy narrative. Alif "had spent so much time cloaked behind his screen name, a mere letter of the alphabet, that he no longer thought of himself as anything but an alif — a straight line, a wall. His given name fell flat in his ears now. The act of concealment had become more powerful that what it concealed." (p.3)

Alif the Unseen, too, conceals a great deal. The initial simplicity of the Aladdin-esque romance with which it begins belies the book's more challenging aspects. Seductive as it is, this early section seems fleeting when set against the heady concoction of faith, torture and politics that fuels its unforgettable finale. Indeed, these ends are so at odds that one can only imagine the inevitable clash, yet instead, Wilson shapes a careful, character-driven commingling — a thing both beautiful and terrible to behold.

Speaking of which, as easy as our characters are to grasp at the outset, as Alif the Unseen progresses they resonate with both emotional depth and intellectual complexity. Particularly when Intisar's part is played, Alif and his childhood friend Dina develop majestically, and the people (and the creatures) they meet on their journey - both within themselves and outwith the world they know - are fantastic fancies, finely described.

Alif the Unseen is an extraordinary novel, written with a hypnotic naturalness that reminded this reader of Neil Gaiman, whose blurb adorns the front cover of Corvus' delightfully designed British edition. He writes that "G. Willow Wilson has a deft hand with myth and with magic," to which assertion I would append a few further words about the part of Alif the Unseen that left a lasting impression on me: namely its rightfully abiding interest in matters of the heart.

A book to treasure, truly.


Alif the Unseen
by G. Willow Wilson

UK Publication: September 2012, Corvus
US Publication: June 2012, Grove Press

Buy this book from /
IndieBound / The Book Depository

Or get the Kindle edition

Recommended and Related Reading

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Giving the Game Away | Free Alif the Unseen

Yesterday I posted an excellent excerpt from Alif the Unseen, and tomorrow, I'll run my review. As if that weren't enough, I had a long and involved talk with the author which should hit the site early next week.

Now I don't make a fuss like this about most books, so perhaps you've already intuited that Alif the Unseen is something special. Well, yes — it is indeed. It's "an exquisite tale of tales," truly a "tour-de-force debut," and you needn't simply take my word for it, because today it gives me great pleasure to announce that I have three copies of the gorgeous new Corvus edition to give away to you lucky lovers of literature.

I'm afraid we can't go worldwide with this one, but if you're based in the UK or Europe, all you have to do to stand a chance of winning is send an email to thespeculativescotsman [at] gmail [dot] com with the answer to the this question:

Which letter of the English alphabet is
the Arabic letter Alif equivalent to?

Mark your subject headers "Free Alif the Unseen," please, and remember to include your postal address in the text of your message.

May the odds be ever in your favour, folks!

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Quoth the Scotsman | G. Willow Wilson on The Good Old Days

Over the next week, we're going to be talking a bunch about Alif the Unseen here on The Speculative Scotsman. So much so that I bet you'll be sick of this pretty picture before we're through. In our innocence, then, look upon this lovely cover!

For today, I wanted to share with you a short excerpt, taken from a debate between an ancient sheikh and our young hacktivist hero. Between the old, in essence, and the new:
"I know it's common for old people to complain about the modern moment, and lament the passing of a golden age when children were polite and you could buy a kilo of meat for pennies, but in our case, my boy, I think I am not mistaken when I say that something fundamental has changed about the world in which we live. We have reached a state of constant reinvention. Revolutions have moved off the battlefield and on to home computers. Nothing shocks one anymore. We are living in a post-fictional era. Fictional governments are accepted without comment, and we can sit in a mosque and have a debate about the fictional pork a fictional character consumes in a video game, with every gravity we would accord something quite real. [...] It is all very strange indeed."

"I don't think what you're talking about is a modern issue," said NewQuarter. "I think we're going back to the way things used to be, before a bunch of European intellectuals in tights decided to draw a line between what's rational and what's not. I don't think our ancestors through the distinction was necessary."

The sheikh considered this for a moment.

"Perhaps you're right," he said. "I suppose every innovation started out as a fantasy. Once upon a time, students of Islamic law were encouraged to give free rein to their imaginations. For example, in the medieval era there was a great discussion about the point at which one is obligated to enter a state of ritual purity while traveling on the hajj. If you were on foot, when? If you went by boat, when? If by camel, when? And then one student, having exhausted all earthly possibilities, posed this question: what if one were to fly? The proposition was taken as a serious exercise in the adaptability of the law. As a result, we had rules governing air travel during hajj five hundred years before the invention of the commercial jet." (pp.366-7)
Just a tiny taste of what's to come!

Stay tuned to the site for a grand old giveaway, followed by my full review of G. Willow Wilson's wonderful first novel, and finally, an in-depth interview with the author.

I'm so excited to post all this it's silly.

Monday, 27 August 2012

The Monday Miscellany | The Tunnel, Books to Die For, Quantum Conundrum

There's been such a ghastly glut of found footage horror movies of late that it can come as no surprise when a high-quality contender slips through the cracks. That's exactly what The Tunnel is: a shockingly accomplished shoestring spookshow very much in the mode of Paranormal Activity. No prizes for guessing that it was met with an overwhelming meh upon its release, either.

That said, The Tunnel deserves better, particularly considering how little it cost to put together. It's an interesting story, actually. Back before Kickstarter kicked off, the mooted movie's producers went to the public for funding. Enzo Tedeschi and Julian Harvery aimed to sell individual frames of the final film for AUS$1 a pop, but for one reason or another - the aforementioned attitude surely had something to do with it - they only managed to raise a quarter of their budget.

They went ahead and made the thing anyway, for about £25k. Considering this, the result is simply stunning. That isn't to say The Tunnel is without its issues, foremost amongst them an over-reliance on interviews apparently conducted after the fact of the accident - interviews which spoil who survives from the first, in fact - but the performances are uniformly strong, the scares are certainly there, and in a found footage horror movie, these aspects are of paramount importance.

The plot, meanwhile, provides a plausible rationale for the form of the film: when a news and current affairs crew take to the flooded subway under Sydney to report on the homeless living therein, they find more than they had bargained for. They find... monsters! And of course they capture them on camera.

Imagine [rec] meets The Descent. Fancy seeing that? Then The Tunnel is for you.

Oh, and hey: you can download this film for free. Legally, even! 


Books to Die For is an odd beast of an anthology, but for what it is, which is almost impossible to quantify, it's brilliant — and beautiful to boot. Hodder & Stoughton's lovely hardcover, out on August 30th, contains a staggering array of essays in which "the world's leading mystery writers [...] come together to champion the greatest mystery novels ever written."

Co-edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke, Books to Die For is essentially an insider's guide to the genre, featuring a who's-who of its foremost proponents on their favourite mystery fiction, which ranges from ye olde right through to the postmodern, covering authors including Stephen King and Douglas Adams. Joe Lansdale recommends Raymond Chandler, Max Allan Collins goes to town Mickey Spillane, Kathy Reichs writes about Thomas Harris.

Meanwhile: Michael Connelly, Jeffrey Deaver, Charlaine Harris, Minette Walters, Karin Slaughter, Lee Child, Jo Nesbo, Dennis Lehane, Peter Robinson, Elmore Leonard, Eoin Colfer, Michael Koryta, Tana French. And know that this is just a fraction of the non-fiction on offer in this massively ambitious anthology. Books to Die For is in excess of 700 pages long, after all, of which the table of contents takes eight. It even comes complete with an index!

Admittedly, some of the contributors are more immediately engaging than others, but none of the essays in Books to Die For run long at all. This is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it means the dull ones are over in no time; a curse because you get the sense some writers are only just getting into their swing when the word count comes crashing down. I'd have given a lot for a little more leg room in that regard.

All told, though, if you're in the least interested in mystery fiction, Books to Die For really is a book to die for. Now then: can we have a speculative fiction edition next?


When I blogged about Portal co-creator Kim Swift's Quantum Conundrum a couple of days before its release on Steam, I wasn't exactly hot on it. I'm still not, but now that actually I've played the thing - from start to finish, because it's the summer, and what else am I going to do? Go outside? - I can speak to the actual experience rather than its lackluster launch trailer.

Then again, I wasn't far off the mark, worrying about Quantum Conundrum's tepid sense of humour. Six or so hours of paltry punchlines later, if I hear Q crack another crappy joke, I'm going to snap a Star Trek: The Next Generation DVD. Don't test me, I'll do it!

Luckily, the puzzles are markedly more engaging than nonsense narrative John de Lancie is saddled with, wherein his mad scientist talks your innocent nephew through a wacky mansion. In short: Professor Fitz Quadrangle is stuck in some strange dimension, full of belly button fluff and other such stuff. It's up to the player to help him escape by powering up generators in three discrete wings, each of which introduces a new dimension.

In the first, fluffy, you can use your magical glove to make the world light and white, thus enabling you to pick up heavy things - like safes - and deposit them on weighted platforms to progress. So far, so simple — and the heavy dimension fails to make things more interesting. But when you gain the power to slow time, and finally to reverse gravity, the puzzle-solving Quantum Conundrum hinges on does pick up.

The only thing hindering your progression through the game's forty-odd test chambers then is the platforming, which is so poorly implemented as to be practically perverse. Jumps are floaty, movement is imprecise, and guys: gravity's a bitch. This is a fundamental fuck-up when the majority of Quantum Conundrum's most promising moments rely on your ability to flit around rooms on top of fast-moving objects. As to that, at least the checkpoints aren't too terrible.

Don't get me wrong: solving the puzzles in Quantum Conundrum is actually a bunch of fun. The kicker is, implementing your answers is an absolute nightmare. Add to that an inane script, a slow start, an uninspired aesthetic, and some outright derivative design decisions... folks, I'm afraid the whole package feels second-rate. Give it a miss unless you're a fan of frustration.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Book Review | The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams

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Or get the Kindle edition 

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.

"This is not a will, but it is a last testament of sorts. [...] What I am about to relate will be unbelievable to many, if not most who hear of it. However, I can assure whoever is reading this that there is nothing wrong with my mind and that I have had proofs that have more than satisfied me of everything I set out here.

"Here is what I now know, which I have seen proved beyond the possibility of debate. There is life after death. The soul does exist without the body. And although most of the narrow, interfering rules of the world's organised religions are just as wrong as I always thought they were, when it comes to the basic facts I must admit that they were right and my fellow doubters and I were wrong. There is a Heaven and there is a Hell." (pp.284-5)
And over the course of genre fiction fixture Tad William's new novel, the first in a series of three, Earthbound angel Bobby Dollar will come into conflict with the forces of both. If he lives to tell the tale, his story is sure to be thrilling... but let's not count our chickens before the fun's even begun.

As what's known in the parlance as an advocate, Bobby's job, mandated from on high, is essentially to defend the dead, for every saint and every sinner shall have his or her judgement day. And on that day, representatives of both heaven and hell will come together, the better to squabble, like lawyers, over the souls of the dearly departed.

Once upon a time, however - for so this fast-paced urban fantasy fable goes - our angelic advocate and his eternal adversary arrive at the scene of an apparent suicide, only to find a startling absence where the late Edward Walker's soul should be. In the many millennia heaven and hell have warred with one another, this is an unheard-of complication, and the resulting shockwaves carry far above, and deep below.

That could be that, but as the blurb boasts, dear Dollar isn't your average angel, so when an insidious scent assails him during his debriefing - in fact something about this whole business smells rotten to Bobby - he goes to ground, puts the moves on an alluring demon queen, and wages a lone campaign against unknown forces, all on an instinct. You know... as you do.

So different is this from his usual epic fantasy fare that I dare say The Dirty Streets of Heaven is hardly recognisable as the work of Tad Williams, though it is not, strictly speaking, the author's first foray into urban fantasy. Published immediately before the four-volume Shadowmarch saga, The War of the Flowers was about one man's mid-life crisis by way of few good fairies and the creatures conspiring against them. In a certain sense, it was like The Never-Ending Story for a new generation — and if it isn't much remembered these seven years on, that's only because The War of the Flowers was then and continues criminally overlooked. It's a fantastic standalone, and if you haven't, you really should read it.

Of course, the more relevant question is whether you should take to The Dirty Streets of Heaven, but it bears repeating that Williams has been here before, or at least somewhere near. This time, however, he means business: almost everything of import occurs in the real world rather than the far-flung fairyland of The War of the Flowers. Indeed, Williams seems surprisingly disinterested in building another imagined kingdom, brick by individual brick.

Bobby certainly visits the titular city on a couple of occasions over the course of The Dirty Streets of Heaven, but both here and at his home away from home - which is to say a pub in the Port of San Judas, southwest of San Francisco - he dismisses almost every opportunity to talk about Heaven or Hell beyond the broad strokes. If it's not "none of your business" or "a story for some other time," it's "not exactly clear" or "hard to explain," and this does begin to frustrate. To properly appreciate The Dirty Streets of Heaven, we must imagine as much about Bobby Dollar's world, if not more, than we are ever informed of.

In terms of character, too, there's something slim about Williams' new novel. Bobby Dollar is a prototypical private eye: a noirish detective type with all the baggage such anti-heroes carry. He won't take a telling, his investigation becomes an obsession, his behaviour is otherwise rarely rational... then he falls head over heels for a femme fatale. And the Countess of Cold Hands isn't even "a woman. Maybe once upon a time, but not for a while. She's part of the ruling class of Hell — a demon, sworn to destruction and the perversion of everything good, and if she's helping you, it's because it suits her. Don't trust a single thing she says or does." (pp.225-6)

That said, a little self-awareness along these lines goes a long way, and eventually Williams' simplistic characterisation gives way to greater depth, if not complexity, as we progress down The Dirty Streets of Heaven. In the interim, Williams moves the conspiracy-driven plot along at a very reasonable rate, punctuating its conversational narration with a wealth of witty interplay between Bobby and his not entirely angelic associates. The action is terrific too, and what with all the monsters and men on our protagonist's path, there's certainly no shortage of that.

At the end of the day, The Dirty Streets of Heaven is a little on the thin side, both figuratively and literally, but for as long as it lasts, it's fine fun. If you've ever read a John Connolly novel, or the Sandman Slim series, you're apt to find it slightly overfamiliar, yet even then the similarities are initial and more importantly superficial. Once Williams finds his feet, and by the end he has, The Dirty Streets of Heaven stands as compelling as any of its many contemporaries, such that its slated sequels - Happy Hour in Hell and Sleeping Late on Judgement Day - will be required reading for this critic.


The Dirty Streets of Heaven
by Tad Williams

UK Publication: September 2012, Hodder & Stoughton
US Publication: September 2012, DAW

Buy this book from /
IndieBound / The Book Depository

Or get the Kindle edition 

Recommended and Related Reading

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Cover Identity | Serene Invasion by Eric Brown

Recently, Solaris unveiled the cover art of Eric Brown's next novel. It's nothing new, but for what it is it's very well done indeed. I'm a fan!
The evil alien face on the spaceship is a nice touch, too. But it might just be a spoiler, because according to the synopsis, the Serene are supposed to be benign:
It's 2025 and the world is riven by war, terrorist attacks, poverty and increasingly desperate demands for water, oil, and natural resources. The West and China confront each other over an inseperable ideological divide, each desperate to sustain their future. 
And then the Serene arrive, enigmatic aliens form Delta Pavonis V, and nothing will ever be the same again. 
The Serene bring peace to an ailing world, an end to poverty and violence — but not everyone supports the seemingly benign invasion. 
There are forces out there who wish to return to the bad old days, and will stop at nothing to oppose the Serene.
I've had my ups and downs reading Eric Brown's work, all of which I've documented here on The Speculative Scotsman. When he's on, as in Engineman and The Kings of Eternity, hoo boy is he on! But when he's off - see Guardians of the Phoenix and The Devil's Nebula - his prose can be a chore, and that's putting it politely.
Still, I soldier ever onward, in the hope of rediscovering the wonder Stephen Baxter speaks of in the quote adorning the cover image above. Serene Invasion could be awful, of course, but it's equally likely to be awesome. I'll be reading it either way... next April.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Video Game Review | Thomas Was Alone, dev. Mike Bithell

In the beginning, Thomas Was Alone.

Thomas is a skinny red rectangle. Not much of a looker, no, but what of it? He's alive!

The simple visual representation of an AI in the right place at the right time - or so the story goes - Thomas becomes conscious of his own existence in the opening moments of creator Mike Bithell's blissful brainchild. Almost immediately, he decides to record his observations for posterity, and as he has them, thanks to Danny Wallace's mostly measured narration, we hear them.

For less long than I might have liked, Thomas has a jolly old time running and jumping and falling around the levels of some strange purgatory world — or rather what little of it he has access to. As his awareness grows in depth and complexity, however, so too does the abstract, graph-paper plane he inhabits. Soon, sadly, Thomas finds himself overmatched by the environment... it's a stroke of luck when he bumps into Chris, a small orange square — even if he is a bit of a hater. Despite his dislike of Thomas, Chris helps his accidental companion navigate the next few levels, and of course the skinny red rectangle returns the favour, because he fancies himself a bit of a hero. They can either work together towards something more, they realise, or continue to exist where they are alone.

Through the next portal they go, then... where they meet another AI. Someone who is a little bit different from either of them again.

In the beginning, Thomas Was Alone, but by the end, my oh my had he made some friends!

For an indie game made almost entirely by one man, the aforementioned Mike Bithell, Thomas Was Alone is truly an incredible accomplishment. It's short at around two to four hours of gameplay, but so neat and sweet in that tiny amount of time that it leaves a hole in your heart when - all too soon - it's over.

Not unlike a game along the lines of Fez, but maybe more like Super Meat Boy without the madness - indeed the meatiness - Thomas Was Alone has you doing very some simple things in increasingly complicated situations. Each of the AIs Thomas meets over the course of his awakening has a unique ability, and a personality to boot: for instance Claire, a big blue blob, has self-image issues, but she can float in water, without which skill Thomas and Chris are plum unable to progress.

Later we're introduced to various other AIs. Many others, as a matter of fact, and given that the player controls them all - switching between them with the Q and E keys - for a moment it feels like Thomas Was Alone is going to descend into tedious micromanaging. But Bithell is on the ball: he never insists that we do any one thing for too long, introducing new characters and dispatching those that have served their purpose with a ruthlessness that belies the astonishingly heartfelt tale Thomas Was Alone tells. Nor are any of the mechanics repeated often enough that they wear out their welcome; a lesson the vast majority of games today would be well to learn.

Mike Bithell might be the primary mind behind the machine, but I should stress that Thomas Was Alone isn't a wholly solo specimen. The sound, say, is as good as the look, which is simply striking: all but unadorned, yet absolutely alive. Anyway, each of the game's ten worlds comes complete with an original ambient track by David Housden, whose atmospheric music complements the aesthetics of the entire smartly.

Credit too to Danny Wallace, whose performance - excepting a few awkward attempts at inflection that put me in mind of early audiobooks - gives credible personality to each and every one of the AIs.

But the writing, the coding, the art, the everything else... that's all down to Bithell, and Bossa Studios' erstwhile lead designer hits it out of the park. In fact he hits it up, and to the right!

That's a bit of an in-joke you're just going to have to play Thomas Was Alone to see the sense of. I wouldn't be surprised to see it come to the PS3 at some point in the future, but for the moment it's PC only. Ideal, then, that it runs like a dream — even on creaky machines like mine.

You can get a copy of Thomas Was Alone direct from the developer via this link, and I dearly recommend you do.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Book Review | Jack Glass by Adam Roberts

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Or get the Kindle edition 

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. 


When hours into the uncomfortably compelling story of survival in the extremes of space with which this masterful murder mystery begins, it dawns on you that you've been tricked into sympathising hook, line and sinker with a sociopathic serial killer, in that moment you know: you're in for something special. Adam Roberts' unabashedly smart new narrative, Jack Glass, is absolutely that. Incredibly, it's a whodunit so sure of itself that we're told who done it up front... if not how or why, or even what "it" is (or was) in one instance.

But before (and after) we get ahead of ourselves — readers, meet the monster:
“The one, the only Jack Glass: detective, teacher, protector and murderer, and individual gifted with extraordinary interpretive powers when it comes to murder because he was so well acquainted with murder. A quantity of blood is spilled in this story, I'm sorry to say; and a good many people die; and there is some politics too. There is danger and fear. Accordingly I have told his tale in the form of a murder mystery; or to be more precise (and at all costs we must be precise) three, connected murder mysteries.
“But I intend to play fair with you, reader, right from the start, or I'm no true Watson. So let me tell everything now, at the beginning, before the story gets going.

“One of these mysteries is a prison story. One is a regular whodunit. One is a locked-room mystery. I can't promise that they're necessarily presented to you in that order; but it should be easy for you to work out which is which, and to sort them out accordingly. Unless you find that each of them is all three at once, in which case I'm not sure I can help you.
“In each case the murderer is the same individual — of course, Jack Glass himself. How could it be otherwise?” (pp.1-2)
How indeed.

Well, as I said a second ago, the how's half the fun; a key piece of the puzzle, alongside the unpacking of the what and the why, the unpicking of the where and the when. At some stage, all of these "wh" words come into play... excepting the obvious, the who of this howdunnit, because obviously Jack did it, didn't he?

Actually, Jack Glass isn't as simple as that, especially when it appears to be. Strictly speaking. All in the spirit of this most magnificent thing, then!

As our as-yet unnamed narrator acknowledges, Roberts' latest greatness is in fact a sequence of three intertwined tales, each of which revolves around a death. In "In the Box," seven convicted criminals are, ingeniously I might add, imprisoned by a canny contractor on a tiny asteroid. It will be eleven years before anyone comes to get them, and in the interim, they can either work together, or die apart.

They've been furnished with a sparse selection of terraforming tools, including an air scrubber, a small space heater, several digging implements, and some lovely mould spores for supper. If they dedicate themselves to the task, the prisoners might be able to eke out the time till their release in some modicum of comfort by excavating a home for themselves — and in so doing creating valuable real estate for the Gongsi to sell at the end of their sentences. Inevitably, however, power struggles occur from the offing, and finally, like sunlight after a long night, death takes its terrible toll. As "In the Box" approaches its irrevocable ending - though the whole book, in truth, has hardly begun - sudden, shocking, even sickening violence is visited upon these prisoners.

And we all know who's responsible.

(Or are taking too much on trust?)

Certainly, we are rather less convinced of our killer's culpability in the next narrative. "The FTL Murders" is the longest of Jack Glass' three parts, and - though the particulars differ - "The Impossible Gun" follows hot on its heels, thus we can discuss them as one, avoiding spoilers.

Our protagonist in this instance, if not necessarily our narrator - whose identity, incidentally, is among the simplest and most satisfying mysteries of Roberts new' novel - our protagonist, in any event, is Diana Argent. Just shy of sweet sixteen when we meet, she becomes obsessed by the seemingly inexplicable slaying of a servant just feet from her and her sister's secret retreat on Earth: the better to keep their bones finely honed, but also because the girls stand to inherit the solar system, so powerful and ambitious are their MOHmies... which is to say their parents, to a point.

Then, essentially the second this awful event is settled, another man is massacred in perilous proximity to Diana and her companion. And on this occasion, the circumstances - recorded as plain as day for any and all parties to examine - truly beggar belief.

Death, then, is omnipresent in Jack Glass, yet it is far from a bleak piece. On the contrary, at times, Roberts' prose and tone is blindingly bright, so don't let some presumption of doom and gloom dissuade you from this fantastically imagined and remarkably wrought trinity of science fiction, murder and mystery. As one of our major players puts it:
"Individually speaking, death is always a rupture, a violence. But taking a total view, death is the bell curve upon which the cosmos is balanced. Without it, nothing would work, everything would collapse, clogged and stagnant. Death is flow. It is the necessary lubrication of universal motion. It is, in itself, neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy." (p.337)
In a sense, reading Jack Glass is like going back to a book you remember very well. After all, we already know the ending. The solution to this puzzle is, fittingly, predictable. But that gets to the heart of what makes Robert's novel so impressive, for the less time we spend humming and hawing over the name and nature of the killer, the more there is to revel in the pure pleasure of the overarching enigma. Why fixate on the destination, anyway, when the journey is so sublimely satisfying in and of and outwith itself? It's freeing, even.

Doubly incredible, then, that though we are given definitive answers to the customary questions at the outset, Jack Glass keeps one guessing till the last second. Perfectly plotted, winningly worded, and as rewarding, despite everything, as anything you’re apt to read this year, this trifecta of golden age goodness is yet another example of Adam Roberts' tremendous talents. Bravo!


Jack Glass
by Adam Roberts

UK Publication: July 2012, Gollancz

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Wednesday, 15 August 2012

A Death in the Family | Harry Harrison (1925 - 2012)

You will recall I was AWOL, on a quest to finally read a few of the doorstoppers that had arrived with me recently. Well, Forge of Darkness is defeated, I'm about halfway through The Twelve as we speak, and next up, Great North Road.

I'm really pleased to have taken the time to do this thing, and I'll have much more to say about the experience at a later date... but today I wanted to take a time out from my time out, because I woke to some very sad news.

This morning, Harry Harrison passed on. As yet, we don't know from what. But it doesn't really matter, does it? He was 87, and I need not add that he'll be missed by many. Not just by friends and family members, but also by the legions of readers of his various series, including the saga of the Stainless Steel Rat

I see Harry Harrison also wrote the novel which inspired Soylent Green, a landmark genre movie if ever there was one.

Harry Harrison was a formative author for me, but oddly not because I read terribly many of his books. Tell you who did, though: my bloody mother! Here on the blog we've talked before about her particular influence on my habits and hobbies — about her fondness for Outlander and A Wizard of Earthsea, amongst other fantastic fictions. Another of her favourites, inherited I think from her father in turn, was West of Eden, by the late, great creator.

I read it, then, on her recommendation. But so long ago now that my memories of it are misty. That said, I remember it being brilliant; I remember that it was a book that underscored my burgeoning interest in fantasy and science fiction; I remember remembering it again and again over the years, and vowing to read it again when I realised that my memories revolved around remembering it rather than the thing itself.

Predictably, perhaps, I didn't. But what better time to right that wrong than now?

Let me open to floor to those of you who have fond memories of the man, or the books he spent his life writing. Do you have a favourite from his vast back catalogue? Was anyone lucky enough to meet or hear him in person, I wonder? He gave the world so much good — let's take this time to give a bit back.

Rest in peace, Harry Harrison.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Comic Book Review | Memorial by Chris Roberson and Rich Ellis

So what if I were to tell you that there's a world where the folks from our favourite childhood storybooks live and breathe like real people? Would you be blown away?


Well, nor was I. Though I had high hopes for Memorial: a six-issue miniseries - now a single gorgeous graphic novel - written by iZombie's Chris Roberson, complete with cartoonish art courtesy of comic book newcomer Rich Ellis, and lush covers by M. W. Kaluta. But it's basically another take on Fables.

That said, the great game that made Bill Willingham's name was for its part far from original, so I certainly didn't come to Memorial desperate to dismiss the thing as a pointless carbon copy based on a couple of conceptual coincidences. Sadly, however, this short series never really rises above its clear and present predecessors — and please, pay particular attention to that there plural, because other obvious influences are waiting in the wings. The Sandman, for example. At times, Memorial reads like a deleted scene from said, set in The Dreaming.

Roberson sets the bar hella high, then, and perhaps that's part of the reason why Memorial misses the mark. But make no mistake: several other factors contribute to its at best graceful failure, including lazy storytelling devices like the amnesia our heroine Em - named after the letter on her necklace - suffers from at the outset.

Another thing that annoyed me was how absolutely passive Em is as a protagonist. Throughout the series she stumbles from fantastical place to place, meets a overwhelming cast of characters, becomes drawn into a potentially crucial conflict... all the while without asserting her agency. Come the last act, even, Em's a pawn in someone else's play for power, and unsurprisingly, the path of least resistance she follows - and we with her - makes for a lackluster narrative.

In the final summation, Rich Ellis' art fares better than Roberson's writing, but I didn't find it particularly inspiring either. He deserves some applause for his attention to detail, but well developed backgrounds can only carry one so far, and I'm afraid Ellis' characters looked too much like cartoons for my liking. As ever, your mileage may vary — after all, beauty lies in the beholder's eyes.

So: the storytelling is twee, the cast never quite comes alive, and the setting - to put it politely - could be better differentiated. But putting aside my problems with Memorial in terms of narrative and character, as well as its telling resemblance, I don't actually doubt that there are interesting stories to be told in this world. Better Roberson had started with one of them than the six issues of insipid set-up this collection consists of, certainly, but even then, this book bears a small portion of potential.

Which is to say, Memorial is far from the home run I had hoped for, but it isn't entirely terrible either. It's muddled, derivative, and difficult to get into, but now that the worldbuilding's well and truly begun - if not done - and we've met the major players, it's got to get better. Or else... what was the point?

Friday, 10 August 2012

Short Story Corner | Let Maps To Others by K. J. Parker

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the lead story in the Summer 2012 issue of Subterranean Press Magazine. "To Be Read Upon Your Waking" was a real treat, and it's great to see Robert Jackson Bennett on the receiving end of such recognition, but for my money - not, I should stress, that I spent any - "Let Maps To Others" by K. J. Parker is a hair's breadth better than Bennett's very fine fairytale.

It begins, as ever with the work of this wildly witty writer, brilliantly:
There is such a place. And I have been there.

They all say that, don’t they? They say; I met someone once who spent five years there, disguised as a holy man. Or; the village headman told me his people go there all the time, to trade timber and flour for spices. Or; the priest showed me things that had come from there—a statuette, a small, curiously-fashioned box, a pair of shoes, a book I couldn’t read. Or; from the top of the mountain we looked out across the valley and there it was, on the other side of the river, you could just make out the sun glinting off the spires of the temples. Or; I was taken there, I saw the Great Gate and the Forbidden Palace, I sat and drank goat-butter tea with the Grand Master, who was seven feet tall and had his eyes, nose and mouth set in the middle of his chest.

You hear them, read them. The first, second, third time, you believe. The fourth time, you want to believe. The fifth time, you notice a disturbing pattern beginning to emerge—how they were always so close they could hear the voices of the children and smell the woodsmoke, but for this reason or that reason they couldn’t go the last two hundred yards and had to turn back (but it was there, it is there, it’s real, it really exists). The sixth time breaks your heart. By the seventh time, you’re a scholar, investigating a myth.

I am a scholar. I have spent my entire life investigating what I now firmly believe to be a myth. But there is such a place. And I have been there.
This sumptuously circular excerpt is evidence enough, I think, of why I believe K. J. Parker to be amongst genre fiction's foremost talents.

And at long last, it appears I'm no longer alone (or as near as dammit) in that assertion, because of late the blogosphere has been abuzz with talk of Parker's new novel, Sharps. Which I need not add makes me very happy - this breakthrough has been an age in the making - alas, my happiness has been blunted somewhat by the sad fact that I'm going to have to stop referring to the rising pseudonymous star as fantasy's most under-appreciated author.

But hey, all's well that ends well!

In any event, like the mind behind Mr. Shivers' discomfiting contribution to the latest edition of Subterranean Press Magazine, "Let Maps To Others" is also on the long side, at 25,000 words — and the stories are thematically similar to boot.

Both, in a sense, are about discovery; both revolve around the systematic investigation of the unknown, indeed the unknowable. In "To Be Read Upon Your Waking," Bennett's protagonist becomes obsessed by a ruin in the woods which ultimately opens a door into time. Meanwhile, in "Let Maps To Others," Parker's single-minded scholar has spent his entire adult life extrapolating a map of the legendary island of Essecuivo from the only surviving sources. In this pursuit, he is bitterly at odds with another addict.
I should explain about Carchedonius. He’s a fine scholar. He’s painstaking, insightful, clear-headed, occasionally brilliant, always worth listening to. His work on the manuscript tradition of Thraso’s Dialogues was what started me on the road to my finest hour, the deciphering of the Sunao Codex. Between us, we know everything there is to know about Aeneas, and Essecuivo. All in all, it’s a shame we hate each other the way we do.

But that can’t be helped, any more than you can get an injunction to stop the winter. The stupid thing is, neither of us can account for it. I’ve never done him any real harm, though not for want of trying, and all his wild schemes to encompass my downfall have failed or backfired on him. Apparently he has some kind of grudge based on some relative of his losing a lot of money when the Company went under. If that’s really the case, he must’ve nursed it like a shepherd’s wife with an orphan lamb. I think I hate him so much because he hates me, though I’m not sure I didn’t hate him first. In any case, it’s been going on since we were both seventeen-year-old freshmen. I guess it’s an interest for both of us; cheaper than collecting pre-Mannerist miniatures, slightly more exciting than watching the donkey-cart races.
So, when Carchedonius finds proof that his rival's assertions were correct, thus definitively disproving his own competing theory, he does what any arch-enemy would: he destroys the evidence, but only after showing it to our man, who - thus spurned - takes his nemesis' deception to the next level, forging a version of the very document that Carchedonius can only disprove by confessing to his own terrible transgression.

This lie, then, this rivalry, becomes the cornerstone of a long and torturous trip to Essecuivo which of course spirals out of hand, costing the lives of many hundred men. And where, one wonders, lays the blame?

"Let Maps To Others" is a sly, sinuous narrative with - if I'm not mistaken - loose ties to The Company, K. J. Parker's first standalone fantasy, and at 25,000 words, it strikes an ideal balance between the prolonged obfuscation that can come to frustrate in Parker's long-form fiction and the necessarily abbreviated scope of his or her short stories.

(I'm currently inclined towards the latter answer, incidentally.)

It's characteristically twisty and oh so deliciously tricky... yet somehow, at the same time, fairly straightforward. Parker's talent for condensing complex narratives - or else confusing simple ones in such a way as to make them seem more involved than they are - is on superb form in "Let Maps To Others," and I'd recommend it to all and sundry, whatever their exposure to K. J. Parker in the past.

I don't know if "Let Maps To Others" reaches quite the same heights as the lately acclaimed "A Small Price To Pay For Birdsong" - which you may read more about here - but Parker's new novella is a stunner, still. It's that rare story that leaves you feeling smarter for having read it, and it's currently available online for the princely sum of nothing.

Well, what are you waiting for? :)

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Quoth the Scotsman | Steven Erikson On Deconstructive Criticism

You may or may not realise that I'm basically AFK at the moment.

I haven't made a thing of it, and there's enough content on the roster for the next few weeks that the difference is likely to be minimal - plus I'll be tweeting and talking in the comments second as much if not more than as I usually do - but I've had to resolve to stop blogging for long enough to take in a few of the tomes that have arrived in my mailbox lately.

Which is to say, I have copies of Great North Road by Peter F. Hamilton, The Twelve by Justin Cronin, and Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson — three huge books that I'd love to read. None of which I would, if I'm honest, unless I put the brakes on for a bit.

So that's what I'm going to do. In fact I've started, and I'm already reaping the rewards. Forge of Darkness has been absolutely fantastic so far: if not easy reading - far from it, actually - then nevertheless incredibly compelling. Thoughtful and evocative, powerfully put and smartly structured, this first volume of Erikson's dark Kharkanas saga engaged me from word one, once I made the decision to slow down for a moment.

But this is a Quoth the Scotsman post, so let's get to the quote in question!

It's of a conversation - from the very early going of the novel, so not at all a spoiler - that's stuck with me in a strange way. A dialogue about the relationship between art and art appreciation that speaks, in a sense, to my own relationship as a reviewer with the books I blog about.

First, a bit of scene-setting: over supper after a sitting, Urusander, so-called saviour of the Tiste people, attempts to express his opinion on the portrait in progress by the famous artist Kadaspala. But Kadaspala doesn't want to know what his subject thinks of the piece, for these reasons:
"When stripped down to its bones, criticism is a form of oppression. Its intent is to manipulate both artist and audience, by imposing rules on aesthetic appreciation. Curiously, its first task is to belittle the views of those who appreciate a certain work but are unable or unwilling to articulate their reasons for doing so. On occasion, of course, one of those viewers rises to the bait, taking umbrage at being dismissed as being ignorant, at which point critics en masse descend to annihilate the fool. No more than defending one's own precious nest, one presumes. But on another level, it is the act of those in power protecting their interests, those interests being nothing less than absolute oppression through the control of personal taste." (p.33)
A typically provocative point from a fantastically confident author.

Riddle me this, then, readers: are critics essentially the antithesis of opinion? Or is Kadaspala's perspective tantamount to an arrogance as offensive as any suggestion or assertion about the perceived quality of an objet d'art?

Monday, 6 August 2012

Book Review | Lord of Slaughter by M. D. Lachlan

On a battlefield strewn with corpses, a ragged figure, dressed in wolfskin and intent on death, slips past the guards into the tent of the Emperor and draws his sword.

The terrified citizens of Constantinople are plagued by mysterious sorcery. The wolves outside the city are howling. A young boy had traded the lives of his family for power. And a Christian scholar, fleeing with his pregnant wife from her enraged father, must track down the magic threatening his world.

All paths lead to the squalid and filthy prison deep below the city, where a man who believes he is a wolf lies chained, and the spirits of the dead are waking.

The Norsemen camped outside the city have their own legends, of the wolf who will kill the gods, but no true Christian could believe such a thing. And yet it is clear to Loys that Ragnarok is coming. Will he be prepared to sacrifice his life, his position, his wife and his unborn child for a god he doesn't believe in?

And deep in the earth, the wolfman howls...


How to start talking about Lord of Slaughter?

Well, we've been here before, of course: this savage, century-spanning saga - of mad gods tormenting mortal men - has played out again and again through the ages. It started, nominally, with Wolfsangel, and continued last year, in Fenrir. Lord of Slaughter is not the final volume of The Claw, but it does represent the severing of several threads, and readers of the series will be relieved to hear these end as brilliantly - and as blackly - as they began.
"Under a dead moon, on a field of the dead, a wolf moved unseen beneath the rain's great shadow. [...] The downpour had started with nightfall as the battle ended. There was too much blood for Christ to bear, said the victorious Greeks, and he had decided to wash it away." (p.1)
With these words, M. D. Lachlan - a pen-name for British ladlit author Mark Barrowcliffe - portends much of what sets Lord of Slaughter apart from its predecessors. In the first, its era and setting, which is to say 10th century Constantinople, make for a markedly more focused and relatable tale that those thus far chronicled in The Claw.

Of late, this great Christian city has been plagued by hellish weather; by cantankerous clouds and gathering thunderheads that the heathen believe the deities of yesterday are responsible for. Amongst themselves they whisper - because to discuss such subjects in public would be an invitation to lifelong imprisonment in the world city's stinking cellar - they whisper, then, of Fimbulwinter, "the barren and frozen time before Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods. The end of the gods is happening here, so the men say, and the city will fall when it does." (p.227)

The Emperor is too busy playing butcher on the battlefield to pay any attention to the malcontents of Constantinople, so his chamberlain Karas takes on the task. He, in turn, solicits the services of an impoverished scholar, Loys, who has only recently arrived in the imperial capital, with an assassin dispatched by his runaway wife's angered father hot on his heels. Thus, though he fears for his soul, Loys cannot afford to refuse the offer of a protected and elevated place in the palace while he investigates the supposed sorcery plaguing the people — particularly given that he and Beatrice have a baby on the way.

Meanwhile, in the tent of the Emperor, a man wearing a wolf - or a wolf wearing a man, perhaps - appears before Constantinople's foremost figure. Ragged and ruined, Elifr, or the creature that had been he, presents no threat as yet. The wolfman's only demand of the Emperor is his own death. Somehow he has become cognisant of the perverse part the fates would have him play in the latest round of the mad gods' games, and Elifr has no desire to see the show through.

Instead, he's after an end to it, once and for all eternity: an end to his life, as well as the sickening cycle of heartrending love and awful loss it is intertwined with. However, not one to grand the wishes of unwelcome intruders, be they sent from heaven or the depths of hell, the Emperor has Elifr cast into the lowest level of his city's subterranean prison to rot... or not.

Last but not least, Lachlan gives us a boy who wishes he were a man — though he is destined to become so much more. As the only witness to the unlikely turn of events that occur in the Emperor's tent, Snake in the Eye has his overlord's ear, so when in the pursuit of puberty he commits an offense usually punishable by death, he is only exiled. Later, in Constantinople, Snake in the Eye comes into his own whilst in the employ of a monkish mercenary, who is searching the city for a certain scholar.

Already you can see how Lord of Slaughter's expansive cast of characters are poised to come together. And when they do? Why the heavens themselves could not compete with the apocalyptic electricity generated.
"This is the time. This is the needful time. The time of endings. [...] Listen, the black dogs are barking. The wolf is near. Can you not hear her call?" (p.178) 
Some of our protagonists are predators, others amongst them their prey, and you will not be able to tell which is which until all is revealed - albeit obliquely - in Lord of Slaughter's ghastly last act, when we come face to face, finally, with "King Kill. The back-stabbing, front-stabbing, anywhere-you-like-and-plenty-of-places-you-don't-stabbing murder god. Odin, one-eyed corpse lord, corrosive and malignant in his schemes and his stratagems. But of course you know all this, you've met him before." (p.53)

If not, know this: you surely should have done. I fear readers unfamiliar with Wolfsangel and Fenrir are apt to find Lord of Slaughter essentially impenetrable. Newcomers need not apply, unless they're prepared to go back to where this grimdark Viking saga started.

That said, the brooding books of The Claw have never had a clearer narrative throughline than that offered by the chamberlain's pet scholar Loys in Lord of Slaughter. As a newcomer to Constantinople, and an investigator whose business it is to unearth an explanation for all the ungodly goings-on that have stilled this thriving Christian city, his perspective soothes like ointment on an injury, or a salve for the soul.

In a sense, then, this installment is both the least and the most accessible of the three volumes of The Claw to date. But do not mistake me: Lord of Slaughter is far from light or easy reading. You have to be intimately engaged with the fiction, on every level, to follow along without incident. As per the series' standard, Lachlan's prose is awfully involved — dense and intense, on the sentence level it straddles the poetic and the prosaic, demanding and rewarding in equal measure. 

In the interim, the medieval metropolis of Constantinople is a pitch-perfect backdrop for the lament of Loki and Odin; in terms of faith and society and civilisation, it represents a crossroads of sorts, where what was shares a space with what will be, when dark magic is no less likely a factor than science. And that is this book to a T. In this perilous place, at this tumultuous time, one imagines that almost anything is possible.

Lord of Slaughter is in sum as forbidding and ferocious a novel as its darkly ambitious predecessors, and though the barrier for entry is high - thus it is unlikely to earn M. D. Lachlan very many new admirers - it satisfies, and then some, those of us who have followed The Claw from its first fresh yet fetid flush.

Thank the mad gods for that!


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


Lord of Slaughter
by M. D. Lachlan

UK Publication: June 2012, Gollancz

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Friday, 3 August 2012

Film Review | The Dark Knight Rises, dir. Chris Nolan

The question of expectations, especially as regards a tentpole flick like this, is a necessary evil in any account of The Dark Knight Rises, but for once in my life, I went into a thing without my blinkers. I was neither primed for a pale imitation of the pitch-perfect previous film, nor desperate to declare The Dark Knight Rises the greatest film since Citizen Kane. I'll admit to high hopes... but there's no harm in those.

Above all, I was aware that the last chapter of Christopher Nolan's re-imagining of all things Batman would have to change things up hugely to escape the long shadow of its immediate predecessor, and the tragic absence of its stunning star.

I don't know that it does, ultimately. In fact The Dark Knight Rises is such a deliberately different film from the summer smash it succeeds that it invites the very comparison one suspects the filmmakers were attempting to sidestep. In a sense, it begs the question. And alas, it can only answer in the negative.

That is certainly not to say this final chapter is a failure. On the contrary, it trumps Batman Begins, the above-par but sub-sterling origin story which kicked off this trilogy, and which The Dark Knight Rises hearkens back to both narratively and thematically. Beyond the initial set-up, however, so little of this series' centerpiece survives that Nolan's lavish new movie feels almost... compromised.
Eight years on from the events of The Dark Knight, crime in Gotham City is at an all-time low because of an act championed by the late DA. Accordingly, the caped crusader - having taking the fall for the death of the very fellow: the duplicitous Harvey Dent - is in retirement. Yet when a new threat arises, Bruce Wayne dons the mantle once more to meet the challenge posed by what amounts to a muscle-man in a gas mask — only to be found unequal to Bane's brute force. Beaten, if not wholly broken as in the pseudo-source material of the surprisingly straightforward screenplay by the brothers Nolan, The Dark Knight must now rise again... again.

Of course it's not a question of "if" but "when" - and perhaps "how" - and in this protracted act The Dark Knight Rises is at its weakest. We who have seen films before know perfectly well that Batman is going to come back, and the time Nolan takes to patch up his protagonist is inexcusable. Superficially this seems a mere over-indulgence, but beneath the sheen the sequence is more insidious still, for what does it offer except a convenient means to a predestined end? How many times must we watch the same Bruce Wayne defeat the same demons in the same film, one wonders.

This repetition does The Dark Knight Rises a disservice, made doubly more damaging because of its incredible length, and the various ways in which - even then - this second sequel fails to flesh out the vast majority of its supporting characters. Lucius Fox, Alfred Pennyworth and Commissioner Gordon are all sidelined or saddled with thankless arcs, meanwhile a few of the major new players also fall flat: Marion Cotillard's Miranda is as wasted as the franchise's past attempts at a love interest, and as Blake, an idealistic young police officer who just so happens to have worked out Batman's deepest secret, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is nearly meaningless.

Almost without exception, however, the star-studded cast makes a herculean effort. In the title role, Christian Bale is a substantially better Bruce Wayne than he's been in the past, and Tom Hardy's Bane is a more credible antagonist than his silly voice suggests, however short-changed he is by the last act. Finally, Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle strikes a smart balance between a damaged femme fatale and the Catwoman of the comic books, complete with cartoonish antics.

Credit where it's earned, incidentally: hers is a character you can imagine easily oversexed, objectified with precious little effort, and yet - despite a few long shots of her bum on the back of the Batbike - she is by a large margin the best-developed woman the Nolans have written into existence. Which may not be saying a great deal, given the caliber of the last candidates.... but every little helps!

I've raised a fair few of my issues with it over the course of this review, but you mustn't misunderstand me: at the end of the day, I had a pretty fine time with The Dark Knight Rises at the IMAX. The unbearable sense of tension that made its predecessor so remarkable may have taken a time out, yet the action is every bit as astonishing, and if Hans Zimmer's score is more of the same, it's more of the same stunning score — plus, it adds at least one memorable new dimension.

It must stand as a testament to how very much the filmmakers do right in this crucial conclusion that even with so much wrong, still The Dark Knight Rises rises above the vast majority of comic book movies. It's more of a sequel to Batman Begins than The Dark Knight, and it fares far better in the former comparison than the latter... but then, what wouldn't?