Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Scotsman Abroad | Introducing the Short Fiction Spotlight

Yesterday was a big day for your resident Scotsman!

In addition to the third instalment of the British Genre Fiction Focus—wherein I touched on the rebranding of Guy Gavriel Kay in the UK, the impact of the cold snap we've had on high street retail, the rise of "artisan authors" via The Guardian, and the announcement of The Time Traveler's Almanac—yesterday also saw the debut of the other feature series I've been working on for Tor.com.

Wonderfully, this once I wasn't working alone, because the Short Fiction Spotlight is a team effort between myself and the brilliant Brit Mandelo. Both of our first editions hit the front page at the same time yesterday, but from here on out we'll be sharing the Spotlight equally, which is to say one week Brit will curate the column, and the next week I will; then her again, then me once more, and so on and so forth—for all time if it takes off.

Long story short—and isn't that the point?—the Short Fiction Spotlight is live, and I'd love it if you took a look.

Here's how my half the whole starts:
Much as we like to tell ourselves otherwise, size absolutely matters. 
What? I’m a shorty; I get to say these things! 
But I mean the size of stories, of course. There are no two ways about it, I’m afraid: whether because of price or presence, viability or visibility, short fiction is the person at the party we politely ignore, or outright rudely overlook. 
I’m as guilty of this telling offence as anyone. In the second installment of my ongoing British Genre Fiction Focus column, I talked up the British Science Fiction Association’s Best Novel nominees—amongst many and various other subjects—yet neglected to mention the six short stories up for one of the BSFA’s other awards. I am appropriately penitent, as we shall see, but this sort of treatment is simply all too typical of the short shrift short fiction is given.
In order to address the problem head on, Brit Mandelo and I will take turns discussing a selection of short stories. As we alternate weeks, Brit will be writing about magazines, primarily—whether physical or digital—meanwhile I’ll be going wherever the wind takes me. This week, for instance, in a timely attempt to correct my earlier oversight, I’ll be running through two of the six nominees for the BSFA’s Best Short Story award, and in subsequent editions of the Short Fiction Spotlight, time permitting, we’ll consider the remaining contenders together. 
After that? Well. I’m sure we’ll see... 
You are, of course, cordially invited to read along with us. We’d adore it if you did! And though not all of the shorts we mean to talk about in this column are available to read for free, where possible we’ll be providing links to the texts themselves, and failing that, advice on how to get hold of certain stories. If you keep watch on the comments, I’ll try to give you advance warning about what we’re reading next, as well.
I'm already hard at work on weeks two and three of this feature, and let me tell you, I've never read so many short stories in such a short space of time. Not in me tod!

Be they great or merely good—there certainly hasn't been a bad 'un in the bunch thus far—committing to co-curating the Short Fiction Spotlight has given me a glimpse in a whole other world of genre goodness, and I'd be over the bloody moon if did the same for a few of you.

So click through. Show your support for short fiction. And while you're at it, why not suggest a few choice stories for Brit or I to read and review?

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

An Ode to Fforde | His Works and Worlds

Last summer, my editor over at Tor.com asked me if I'd be interested in writing an introduction to the works and worlds of Jasper Fforde.

I was, obviously!

What follows is a slightly revised version of that article, reposted today in anticipation of the paperback publication of the latest Thursday Next novel tomorrow.

***

It takes a certain sort of author to inspire an annual festival, doesn’t it?

It takes a certain sort of author to bring such unadulterated joy to his or her readers that they are compelled to come together each and every year — in a great city in the South West of England, for instance — the better to celebrate the craving for all things comic they share.

Since its commencement in 2005, the Fforde Ffiesta has been home to any number of incredible events, including an interactive performance of Richard III, the first and alas the last live recording of everyone’s favourite game show, Celebrity Name That Fruit, and in the interim, guided tours of The Seven Wonders of Swindon. This year, one of the most memorable activities the volunteer organisers, uh, organised, was a march on ASDA. That’s the long arm of Walmart here in the U.K., incidentally; one supermarket to rule them all and all that.

All that, all this, and so much more besides: all to toast the works and the worlds of one writer. An odd thing in this day and age, I’m sure you’ll agree — but most definitely deserved, because Jasper Fforde, as I’ve endeavoured to establish beyond the merest suggestion of a shadow of doubt in the previous paragraphs, is... a certain sort of author.

Why, I couldn’t have put it better myself!

The thing about Fforde, though, is that he has four concurrent series on the go. This month alone saw the release of the seventh volume of his 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 deserve.

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?

The obvious answer is, obviously, The Eyre Affair. This, the first volume of the first of two ostensibly separate series featuring Thursday Next, was also the first of Fforde’s novels to be published, in 2001, and though legend has it that publishers rejected his eventual debut precisely 76 times, it’s hard to see why. Even now, eleven books later, it stands as a timeless testament to the very factors that have attracted such a devoted following to Fforde.

Amongst these factors, first and foremost, there’s the unadaulterated fun of it. Hardly anyone takes Thursday Next seriously — nor, indeed, should we. It’s practically impossible not to fall for Fforde’s particular font of fiction as his wholesome heroine becomes embroiled in a consternating case involving the kidnapping of characters from classic works of literature. When Jane Eyre is removed from Jane Eyre, enough is enough, but as the British paperback blurbs, “solving crimes against literature isn’t easy when you also have to find time to halt the Crimean War, persuade the man you love to marry you, and figure out who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays.”

(Spoiler alert: Shakespeare did it.)

(Or did he?)

(Yes, he did. Eat your hearts out, conspiracy theorists!)

The Eyre Affair is a very fine introduction to Jasper Fforde’s fiction, and if you’re a fan of following your favourite characters from book to book — if you prefer series as opposed to standalones — I’d recommend it above all else. From here, after all, Thursday becomes Lost in a Good Book, then inThe Well of Lost Plots, before discovering Something Rotten. Lest we forget First Among Sequels, One of Our Thursdays Is Missing and The Woman Who (you will recall) Died A Lot. What with Dark Reading Matter due in a few years, there’s no end in sight, either.

However, if — like me — you’re more inclined towards the self-contained than the saga, The Eyre Affair is great, but there are better books with which to begin.

I dare say I don’t mean The Big Over Easy, because it’s not really the beginning of anything... except insofar as it is. It takes place in the same weird and wonderful world as The Eyre Affair, but the Nursery Crime narrative — which has to date investigated Humpty Dumpty’s staged suicide, and in The Big Over Easy’s sole sequel The Fourth Bear, the disappearance of Goldilocks — is neither as expansively involving as the Thursday Next novels, nor as satisfying in its own right as, say, Shades of Grey.

Perhaps that’s because, while The Big Over Easy was the fifth of Fforde’s novels to be published, it was in fact the first book he finished. It was substantially rewritten for its subsequent release in 2005, and though in its current form it is every inch as witty as the first Thursday Next novel (with which it shares a world), it lacks that comedy of errors’ winning warmth. In a way, it’s also more of the same, and ultimately, a touch too farcical for me to endorse it wholeheartedly. Don’t misunderstand me: you should still read it... only after The Eyre Affair. Or better yet, in my opinion, our next contender.

Not to be confused with the erotic sensations sweeping the nations as we speak, Shades of Grey, published in 2010, is in a sense Fforde’s most accomplished fiction: a post-apocalyptic murder mystery come colour-cross’d love story that resists classical classification. In the brave new world of this book, you are whatever shade you can see, because since the Something That Happened people can no longer identify the full spectrum. Our unlikely hero Eddie Russet is a Red, and The Rulebook insists that he must only socialise with others of his colour. Thus, when he falls head over heels for a lowly Grey — but what was he doing in heels anyway? — he’s going against the letter of the law, literally. But love does strange things, especially to strange people, and to complicate matters still further, the oddball object of our man’s abject affection seems determined, for one reason or another, to kill Eddie dead.

With which, the scene is set for the hijinks ahead, and what weird and wonderful hijinks they are!
“We first encountered each other [...] when my mind was young and the barrier between reality and make believe had not yet hardened into the shell that cocoons us in adult life. The barrier was soft, pliable and, for a moment, thanks to the kindness of a stranger and the power of a good storytelling voice, I made the short journey — and returned.”
Shades of Grey is a fanciful tour-de-force: an exceptional satire of the way the world works today set against a vision of tomorrow so anomalous as to excite. The ffabulous Mr. Fforde won’t thank me for saying this — he’s somewhat outspoken on the subject of genre, which mode of categorisation he has anointed as “the measles of the book world” — but if you think you know what fantasy fiction is, simply read Shades of Grey, then think again.

How curiously counter-intuitive it is, then, that the last of the candidates we’re considering for the title of Best First Fforde must be the author’s most normal genre novel. Assuredly, The Last Dragonslayer isn’t the epic legend the title suggests, but of all these beginnings, it is yet the easiest to identify, as the coming of age fable of a weird girl wizard – namely Jennifer Strange, the 15-year-old de facto manager of Kazam, “an employment agency for soothsayers and sorcerers,” in a world where magic exists (indeed dragons do too) but even the smallest of spells must be preceded by the completion of release form B1-7G.

Bleedin’ bureaucracy!

I don’t envy Fforde’s marketing department the task of deciding how to describe this inimitable author’s novels, but pitching The Last Dragonslayer as YA fantasy is probably as close as they’ve come to the money. That said, excepting its length, and the age of its heroine — though Jennifer is wise beyond her years — in tonal terms there’s nothing in the least “lesser” about the Dragonslayer series. It’s as witty, earnest, and intelligent as anything this author has written. It’s just shorter. And shinier. Because little people like shiny things... right?

The Last Dragonslayer, then, is an ideal introduction to Fforde’s fiction if you’d sooner dip your toes than take a bath in this writer’s zany imagination. If that goes well with you — and I see no reason why it wouldn’t — the sequel, The Song of the Quarkbeast, is out now, whilst the concluding volume, The Return of Shandar, should bring this eminently approachable trilogy to an acerbic end in 2013.

If you’d rather start with something even more modest, well... Jasper Fforde doesn’t write short fiction terribly often, but this exception is enough to make you wish it were otherwise. You can read “The Locked Room Mystery Mystery” for free via that last link.

At the end of the day, I’d still recommend Shades of Grey — which stands alone for the moment — over both the Dragonslayer series and the Thursday Next novels, because though it marks something of a departure from his usual oeuvre, to my mind it exemplifies everything that’s incredible about this author a decade on from his debut, and he’s only gotten greater. The Last Dragonslayer is such fun you might have to take a shower after finishing it, The Eyre Affair is superb insofar as it arrays the stage for several still better books, and even The Big Over Easy — easily the least of these books — is worth a look one day... but Shades of Grey stands out proudly from the crowd.

Of course, I’m biased. Shades of Grey was my first Fforde. The first, self-evidently, of many.

What, I wonder, was yours?

Or perhaps I would be better to ask: what will yours be?

If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, rest assured, wherever you ultimately opt to start reading Jasper Fforde — whether with Shades of Grey, The Last Dragonslayer, The Big Over Easy, or The Eyre Affair — you’re in...

...wait for it...

...for a ffantastic time!

Monday, 28 January 2013

But I Digress | The Many-Coloured Covers, or, Me and Mrs May

Whilst assembling the first edition of the British Genre Fiction Focus for Tor.com, I found myself looking for something to read — a rare occasion indeed — and for various reasons, the recent reissue of The Many-Coloured Land caught my eye.

Now I've been vaguely aware of Julian May for all my adult life. Though my mum doesn't read much these days, when she did, The Saga of the Exiles was one of her favourite series. She still recalls it fondly.

But I always was one to go my own way. Even as a babe. So though I read A Wizard of Earthsea on her say-so, and adored it, and though the various other books she recommended me in my younger years were very probably responsible for my abiding speculative fiction fixation, The Many-Coloured Land lay unloved on its shelf in the study.

A couple of weeks ago, I finally righted my wrong. I read through The Many-Coloured Land in a couple of pretty serious sittings, and I see now that I should have done so years ago. But better late than never, eh?

It was nice to have a shared experience to discuss with my mum, for one. And she was a proper font of knowledge about the series when I asked her about it over the weekend.

To begin with, I didn't realise that Julian May was a woman. I don't think that fact would have altered the odds of me reading these novels then or now... all the same, I feel an utter idiot.

Whilst visiting, I also took a look at the much-loved copies of the quartet my mum has had since the early 80s. Here's a quick comparison of covers adorning those versus this recent reissue:



I know which artwork I'd rather have! Are you with me?

Then again, if The Saga of the Exiles hadn't been re-released — never mind the Game of Thrones-esque imagery — I doubt I'd have looked twice at it. As is, I'm greatly anticipating the next time I have a few days to spare, because I can't get started on The Golden Torc soon enough.

So. Lesson learned. Digression end.

Except to say: hey, are there any other massive Julian May fans out there?

Friday, 25 January 2013

Book Review | The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman


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When you haven't had sex in a long time, it feels like the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone.

If you're living in Germany in the 1930s, it probably isn't.

But that's no consolation to Egon Loeser, whose carnal misfortunes will push him from the experimental theatres of Berlin to the absinthe bars of Paris to the physics laboratories of Los Angeles, trying all the while to solve two mysteries: whether it was really a deal with Satan that claimed the life of his hero, the great Renaissance stage designer Adriano Lavicini; and why a handsome, clever, charming, modest guy like him can't, just once in a while, get himself laid.

From the author of the acclaimed Boxer, Beetle comes a historical novel that doesn't know what year it is; a noir novel that turns all the lights on; a romance novel that arrives drunk to dinner; a science fiction novel that can't remember what 'isotope' means; a stunningly inventive, exceptionally funny, dangerously unsteady and (largely) coherent novel about sex, violence, space, time, and how the best way to deal with history is to ignore it.

*** 

If Nick Harkaway hadn't already doubled down on his dazzling debut with this year's extraordinary Angelmaker, I wouldn't hesitate to declare The Teleportation Accident the spiritual successor to The Gone-Away World. It's incredibly intelligent, fantastically distracted, and I'd go so far as to say aggressively diverse. You won't read a more memorable novel about sex, obsession and the sticky stuff of science fiction this year, if ever.

Plus, it has funny... and in such tumultuous abundance!
"When you knock a bowl of sugar on to your host's carpet, it is a parody of the avalanche that killed his mother and father, just as the duck's beak that you new girlfriend's lips form when she attempts a seductive pout is a quotation of the quacking noise your last girlfriend made during sex. When the telephone rings in the night because a stranger has given a wrong extension to the operator, it is a homage to the inadvertent substitution of telegrams that terminated your adulterous cousin's marriage, just as the resonant alcove between the counterpoised struts of your new girlfriend's clavicle is a rebuttal to the apparent beauty of your last girlfriend's fleshier decolletage. Or this is how it seemed to Egon Loeser, anyway, because the two subjects most hostile to his sense of a man's life as an essentially steady, comprehensible and Newtonian-mechanical undertaking were accidents and women. And it sometimes seemed seemed as if the only way to prevent that dread pair from toppling him all the way over into derangement was to treat them not as prodigies but rather as texts to be studied. Hence the principle: accidents, like women, allude. These allusions are no less witty or astute for being unconscious; indeed they are more so, which is one reason why it's probably a mistake to construct them so deliberately. The other reason is that everyone might conclude you're a total prick." (p.3)
So begins The Teleportation Accident: lewd, shrewd and unconscionably crude. And so it continues, until it concludes with a final chapter as batty as it is brilliant. In the interim, between the offing and the ultimate ending - for there are in fact four finales - a veritable cavalcade of crazy. Crazy, I should say, in a good way — like our tortured twit of a narrator.

Egon Loeser is a sex-starved set designer based, at the outset, in Berlin in the 1930s, however The Teleportation Accident chronicles more than a decade in his ill-fitting shoes, taking in Paris, France and the New World of the United States in addition to time served in Germany. What compels Loeser to travel so widely is, of course, the object of his abject affections. Early on, he falls for Adele Hitler (no relation), basically because he's optimistic enough to think he has a chance with her. "For eyes as dizzying as Adele's to exist in the same body as a banal urge to get stoked over a desk by an unwashed playwright was a paradox as imponderable as the indivisibility of the Trinity," (p.50) he muses at one point, with not a hint of hope, so when she suddenly exits their shared social circle, Loeser resolves to follow the love of his life to the ends of the earth, if need be.

Well, need be indeed. But to be blunt, the upheaval isn't such a massive sacrifice. Loeser hates all his friends anyway — not to mention the unmentionable, that "by early 1933, even the most heedless and egotistical Berliner - so, ever Loeser - couldn't help but notice that something nasty was going on. At parties now, optimism had given way to dread, and yells to whispers — the really good times were never coming back, and to think what might come next was just too horrible. [...] German history was at a turning point," (p.47) and in Loeser's lizard-brain, any excuse to circumvent such a buzzkill is brilliant. If he can catch up with Adele as well, then so much the better.

So off he trots...

...right into the sights of a serial killer! Oh, and a double agent. Also various would-be war criminals. And neither last nor least, a mad scientist who, with his lovely assistant, a certain Ms. Hister, purports to be testing a prototype of the titular teleportation device.

All this hearkens back to a centuries-old murder mystery that has fascinated Loeser for all his adult life, involving Lavicini, "the greatest stage designer of the seventeenth century," (p.4) whose own so-called Extraordinary Mechanism for the Almost Instantaneous Transport of Persons from Place to Place brought about a tragic loss of life and limb in the theater where it was demonstrated for the first - and the last - time.

Is history about to repeat itself, one wonders? Or can Loeser, unlikely as it sounds, somehow save the day?

There are some incredible characters flitting about the periphery of The Teleportation Accident, including not a few famous factual figures... you know, the sort of historical so-and-sos you might be inclined to read a book about. Yet here we have the bawdy biography of Egon Loeser, whose only real goal in life is to get laid, by hook or by crook. Truth be told, though, for this particular tale, his off-kilter angle is the perfect perspective.

Meanwhile, certain events occur beyond the bounds of the no man's land the narrative of Ned Beauman's new novel nestles in — not least, as in Boxer, Beetle, the holocaust. However, the closest we get to the war proper is via a shred of a letter from Loeser's former friend Blumstein, who attempts to tell our self-centered storyteller a little about what his country of origin has become since he abandoned it in search of Adele. Alas, our man, in his infinite wisdom, discards Blumstein's desperate message after a paragraph, thus preventing us from ever hearing the end of the anecdote.
"When Loeser heard the exiles whine, he sometimes thought to himself that he, too, had been dismissed from his vocation and forced out of his homeland. [But] his vocation was sex. His homeland was the female body. He felt just as lost as they did, but no one was ever sympathetic." (p.215) 
For a brief period, this is fairly frustrating, but ultimately, I think, the author's decision is fitting, because besides its distressing setting, The Teleportation Accident is not otherwise a novel concerned with matters poignant or profound. If anything it's a farce, with hints of science fiction, noir and romance; it's a comedy of egregious errors, above neither slapstick nor pratfalls, complete with a darkly sparkling sense of humour and enough wit to sustain Britain for the foreseeable future. To intertwine such a frivolous thing with the unspeakable horrors of war would be to belittle both — a potential pitfall Beauman is wise enough, just, to sidestep.

The Teleportation Accident is absurd, assuredly, but not entirely amoral, and while it might take some time to become comfortable with its masterfully meandering narrative, the investment is well worth making, because Ned Beauman's second novel easily eclipses his first: an excellent debut, but The Teleportation Accident, its own right, is twice the book Boxer, Beetle was. It's much more coherent, and markedly more accessible. A one-hit wonder, then, this author is not.

As established, The Teleportation Accident is far from profound, but be that as it may, it is profoundly funny, and on the sentence level, simply exhilarating. The sheer irreverence of Ned Beauman's sophomore outing renders it nearly meaningless, yet in the final summation, The Teleportation Accident is only as incidental as it is, equally, essential.

***


The Teleporation Accident

by Ned Beauman

UK Publication: July 2012, Sceptre
US Publication: February 2013, Bloomsbury

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Recommended and Related Reading

 

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Book Review | The Rook by Daniel O'Malley



"The body you are wearing used to be mine."

So begins the letter Myfanwy Thomas is holding when she awakens in a London park surrounded by bodies all wearing latex gloves. With no recollection of who she is, Myfanwy must follow the instructions her former self left behind to discover her identity and track down the agents who want to destroy her.

She soon learns that she is a Rook, a high-ranking member of a secret organization called the Checquy that battles the many supernatural forces at work in Britain. She also discovers that she possesses a rare and deadly supernatural ability of her own.

Filled with characters both fascinating and fantastical, The Rook is a richly inventive, suspenseful fantasy. An astonishing debut from a brilliant new voice.

***

Imagine you woke up one day unable to remember who you were. Without even the knowledge of your name, or what you did for a living - far less the little things like the food you enjoy eating, or the music you choose to listen to - I wonder, would you still be you? If our individual experiences of the world are what make us the men and women we are, and we forget these, are we still the same people?

Though this is its core conceit - familiar, yes, yet fresh in its execution - Daniel O'Malley's distinctive debut has little time for such philosophical ponderings: The Rook does touch on the above, but it is much more interested in the action-packed aftermath of its protagonist's identity crisis than the tenuous questions raised by her strange psychical transformation.

Given O'Malley's intent, then, The Rook's setting - in a United Kingdom plagued by secret supernatural set-pieces - is exemplary; its always-on pacing seems near ideal; and its quick-fire characterisation feels perfectly fit for purpose. Those in search of deep and meaningful reading would be best advised to avert their eyes, but presuming you can put aside your penchant for profundity, The Rook is an incredibly entertaining debut, with precious few pretensions and a remarkably smart sense of itself.

It begins with the death and rebirth of Rook Myfanwy Thomas, administrator extraordinaire for the Checquy, which is "a centuries-old militant organization that operates under a shroud of secrecy with a plethora of baroque (and sometimes rococo) traditions and bureaucracy [whose] members are trained to kill and equipped with supernatural capabilities." (p.41) Or hadn't you heard?

Just as well, because you weren't meant to! In any event, our heroine knows next to none of this — nor, immediately, do we: the nature, indeed the notion of the Checquy is as much a mystery to Myfanwy as exactly how she came to be bereft of her memories, and even this is a secondary concern considering she comes to in the centre of a circle of bodies wearing latex gloves.

The way in which all this information is conveyed, here at the very outset of the text and through the remainder of The Rook, is one of O'Malley's most memorable inventions: you see, forewarned about her strange fate, and as organised as the alphabet, Myfanwy has written a load of letters to herself.
"Dear You, 
"The body you are wearing used to be mine. The scar on the inner left thigh is there because I fell out of a tree and impaled my leg at the age of nine. The filling in the far left tooth at the top is a result of my avoiding the dentist for four years. But you probably care little about this body's past. After all, I'm writing this letter for you to read in the future. Perhaps you are wondering why anyone would do such a thing. The answer is both simple and complicated. The simple answer is because I knew it would be necessary. 
"The complicated answer could take a little more time." (p.1)
It takes a lot longer than that, actually - The Rook is about twice the length of your standard urban fantasy novel - but my oh my, the time does fly by! In part, this is thanks to some compelling characters: Lady Farrier is an early favourite, though our super-powered supervisor's polyphrenic counterpart at the Checquy, Rook Gestalt, soon supersedes her stiff upper lip. Credit too to Myfanwy's comrade from across the pond; the Croatoan's Bishop Petoskey brings out the best in The Rook's rather alarmed protagonist.

Largely, however, O'Malley keeps things interesting by alternating between two tales starring variations on our central character. In the first, we follow her desperate attempts to fit in at work, where a crisis involving an old enemy is escalating exponentially. The tension in these sections is terrific, because of course amnesiac Myfanwy can't tell her friends from her enemies — and to make things still more exhilarating, her colleagues have no idea that she has no idea. Waiting for Rook Thomas to put a foot wrong, with potentially catastrophic consequences, is an exquisitely painful process.

Meanwhile, we have her past self's letters to her present self: a disarming dialogue, in other words, between two versions of one person. From setup to dĂ©nouement, these sections serve several purposes. Often, they act as a glossary casually embedded in the text itself, explaining the jargon Myfanwy encounters in her second life with conversational flair, but our past tense protagonist also features in her fair share of action and intrigue — typically during the contemporaneous tale's downtime. Thus, whenever worldbuilding or some such thing distracts one of the two Rooks Thomas, the other is there to pick up the narrative's slack.

Occasional shortcomings do reveal O'Malley's inexperience of the form, I fear. A number of logical inconsistencies arise over the course of The Rook, and certain characters behave badly; the prose is not as polished as possible; and almost without exception, everyone Myfanwy meets is either gorgeous or grotesque, which adds to the aforementioned sense that this is essentially a superficial pleasure. On the whole, though, the most notable negative is that the novel is a touch too long, such that its core storytelling conceit loses a fraction of its charm in advance of the finale.

Otherwise, Daniel O'Malley's debut is unputdownable urban fantasy: wonderfully whimsical, and dangerously entertaining, which is to say - in light of its length - you might have to remind yourself to eat rather than keep reading The Rook.

After all, who needs food when you've got a good book?

***

The Rook
by Daniel O'Malley

UK Publication: January 2013, Head of Zeus
US Publication: October 2012, Back Bay Books


Recommended and Related Reading

Monday, 21 January 2013

Comic Book Review | The Crow: Death and Rebirth by John Shirley


I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw a copy of the first issue of The Crow: Death and Rebirth in the comic book store the other month. It had been long enough that I'd almost forgotten the franchise entirely, and I confess that felt a blessing after the last film to bear the brand: 2005's Wicked Prayer, starring Edward Furlong before the fall, is one of the few movies in Rotten Tomatoes' vast back-catalogue to have and to hold the booby prize of 0% approval.

Now I adored The Crow in its first and most fertile forms - which is to say a few of the comic books too - and did not entirely despise its subsequent spin-offs, but having suffered through Wicked Prayer once upon its direct-to-DVD release, I would agree with that collective assessment entirely.

Wicked Prayer was the final nail in The Crow's coffin for me, and in the seven years since, the franchise has had naught to offer. In the end, someone must have had the good sense to say enough was enough, and by God, it was. But now? Now, damn my eyes - now, or else then, which is to say whilst collecting my stack of singles sometime last summer - the idea of a revival no longer seemed so egregious.


In a sense, then, IDW's relaunch of the gothic fiction phenomenon is well timed: they let the damned thing lie for just long enough that I couldn't put my finger on exactly why I was so tired of it.

Death and Rebirth reminded me.

Not too far in the future, in Japan's capital city, exchange student Jamie Osterberg and Haruko Tatsumi - receptionist for a cybernetic biology corporation - are very much in love. Alas, their affair is fated to end terribly, because BioTrope's boss hog Hendra also wants Haruko... if only for her body. She may appear to be on the way out, but Hendra has no plans to go quietly into to great goodnight; instead, she intends to make use of the technology her firm have been developing to install her soul in another shell, and the young woman she's seen at the entrance desk looks like a perfect candidate.

Initially, everything goes according to plan. Hendra possesses Haruko, and when Jamie is caught snooping in the BioTrope building, looking for some explanation for his fiancĂ©e's sudden change of heart, she promptly dispatches a pair of assassins to tie up the loose end he represents. With the Kenjutso Haruko's father has helped him hone, Jamie faces his attackers bravely, but two guns trump one sword, however righteous. He's unceremoniously shot dead.


But this is The Crow - this is a story all about how love conquers all, even death; a story first told by James O'Barr after a drunk driver killed his girlfriend - so of course Jamie's death isn't the end. Far from it, in fact, for all this occurs in the first issue of Death and Rebirth, which concludes with the awakening of our tragic anti-hero, imbued now with the superhuman strength and agility that comes courtesy of the crow spirit.

And Jamie will stop at nothing to see Haruko's killers brought to justice.

It's a strong start, actually — compared to the remainder of the miniseries, at least. Overburdened by the necessary evil of exposition, assuredly, and rushed in a number of other ways - most notably, it would have been nice to spend a little longer with our lovers before their inevitable ends - but I enjoyed the first issue of Death of Rebirth more than any of the subsequent singles, which systematically subtract from the appeal of this near-future narrative. By the end, the setting has been rendered incidental at best, the aforementioned characters have practically vanished, excepting perhaps Hendra, whilst the story has become an embarrassing chronicle of The Crow cracking wise like Spider-man, or rather trying to.


I expected so much more from Bram Stoker Award-winning author John Shirley than this silliness. For one thing, he co-wrote the original film, so he's certainly no stranger to The Crow. One can only wonder if he too had forgotten what made the franchise so powerful in the first place... if indeed it ever was, and Death and Rebirth is such a waste of space that I can't help but second-guess myself.

In short, let this one rot, readers. But maybe don't give up on IDW's revival of The Crow quite so summarily. The next miniseries to bear the brand, subtitled Skinning the Wolves, is by James O'Barr himself, which sounds to me like an excellent litmus test as to the question of whether or not there's any life left in this old sow of a story.

If however Skinning the Wolves doesn't improve on Death and Rebirth, then I'm out, and I most definitely won't be giving The Crow another go.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Book Review | A Red Sun Also Rises by Mark Hodder



My name is Aiden Fleischer. I was forced from my home, moved among the victims of Jack the Ripper, was tortured by a witch doctor, and awoke on another planet. Throughout it all, my assistant, Clarissa Stark, remained at my side.


On Ptallaya, we were welcomed by the Yatsill. The creatures transformed their society into a bizarre version of our own, and we found a new home beneath the world's twin suns. But there was darkness in my soul, and as the two yellow globes set, I was forced to confront it, for on Ptallaya...

A RED SUN ALSO RISES

...and with it comes an evil more horrifying than any on Earth.

***

It's one thing to follow in your father's footsteps; another, I dare say, to follow them all the way to the grave. Alas, this is very the life laid out for Aiden Fleisher, the only son of a revered Reverend:
"My predecessor had been a dynamic sermoniser. He was compassionate, engaging, funny, and popular. I was none of those things. I may have been doing the work of Our Lord, but it was immediately apparent that I wasn't very good at it. Crippled by nerves, I stuttered through each Sunday service while my flock first snored, then strayed." (p.2)
In this way, "in a parochial little vicarage in Theaston Vale with its dusty library and stultifying dullness," (p.234) Aiden basically waits for age to take him. Yet destiny has other designs on our dear unbeliever. Indeed, he will travel to another planet entirely, accompanied by a hunchbacked vagabond called Clarissa Stark. There, trapped amongst the strange beings populating Ptallya, their mettle is to be truly tested. Aiden and his faithful friend will find themselves just in time to lose one another—and all against the alarming backdrop of a darkening environment, over which a red sun also rises.

Taken together, this deeply weird but unambiguously wonderful world, alongside the odd assortment of aliens which inhabit it, can be hard to grasp at the outset of the fourth novel from the author of the Burton & Swinborne trilogy. The following explanation, from one of the natives - who overnight, as it were, take on the behaviours of their unsuspecting saviours - should in that sense set you in better stead:
"Once, long ago, Ptallya was [...] a place of savagery and conflict ruled over by the wicked creatures we call Blood Gods. Then the Saviour's Eyes opened and looked upon it and found there was nothing pleasing to see, until, eventually, the Yatsill wandered into sight and were judged to be good. So the Saviour cast the Blood Gods out and made the Yatsill the new rulers of Ptallya. However, the Heart of Blood itself could not be supplanted, so a balance was established. When the Saviour's Eye are open, the world is ours. We journey to the Forest of Indistinct Murmurings to recover the Servants who are delivered here from your world and to milk Dar'sayn from the fruit of the Ptoollan trees that our Magicians might be strong; and we take our children to the Cavern of Immersion to be made Aristocrats or Working Class. But when the Saviour's Eyes close, the jealous Blood Gods return to Ptallya. They possess the Aristocrats and attack Phenadoor — for they want to destroy it." (p.140)
Note that I didn't say this potted history would make A Red Sun Also Rises easy to understand... just a little less difficult.

Luckily, this question of accessibility is only an issue in the beginning: perhaps a few chapters pass before author Mark Hodder figures out what he's about, however he settles in soon afterwards, and we do too — albeit into a place that changes outrageously over the course of A Red Sun Also Rises, and a populace which reinvents itself equally frequently.

This feeling, that the ground beneath our feet might be removed at any moment, has to be half the fun of Del Rey UK's dizzyingly inventive debut. The remainder of A Red Sun Also Rises' appeal comes courtesy of its central character, whose crisis of faith plays out against a fantastic canvas which serves to articulate every one of Aiden's angels, and doubly demonstrate his demons.
"Faith is to have conviction and, and gain comfort from, a hypothesis, despite there being no empirical evidence to support it. In my father's case, the premise was that all existence is created by a single supreme being, and that its meaning cannot be truly understood until a life has been lived and the actions taken during it have been judged by the creator. [But] if that's true, why is existence so flawed? Why does the opposite of good exist — conflict and suffering and injustice — the things we term 'evil'? Are they to test us, so we might be judged. Are we, then, nothing but an experiment? Why has a faultless creator fabricated something so unsound that it requires evaluation?" (p.186)
To a certain extent, Clarissa Stark is interesting as well - which is more, I'm afraid, than can be said for Hodder's host of supporting characters - sadly even she stands in the shadow of our protagonist, whose journal A Red Sun Also Rises purports to be.

I sincerely doubt that I'll read a weirder book than A Red Sun Also Rises this year, but be assured, there is method to its madness, and a curious sort of beauty, too. I can hardly imagine a more fitting beginning for a new genre fiction imprint than this marvellous meeting of the weird and the scientific romances of yesteryear, with which Mark Hodder demonstrates himself every inch the Philip K. Dick Award-winning author he is.

***

A Red Sun Also Rises
by Mark Hodder

UK Publication: January 2013, Del Rey
US Publication: December 2012, Pyr

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

Or get the Kindle Edition

Recommended and Related Reading

Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Scotsman Abroad | The British Genre Fiction Focus Begins!

Today, I'm incredibly excited to unveil the inaugural edition of a series I've been working on, in secret, for weeks.

In short, the British Genre Fiction Focus is a column concerned with news and new releases in the UK that I'll be writing for Tor.com on a weekly basis, and the opening instalments are upon us.


Once you've finished with the introduction - wherein I sing the praises of speculative fiction in Britain, state my mandate, and, as ever, bemoan the hellish weather - you might also like to take a look at the first edition of the feature for serious.

Here's a titbit from it:
Whether I’m loving a novel or loathing it wholly, finishing a thing is singularly exhilarating.

Perhaps you’re wondering why I would say that. The easy answer is because afterwards, I get to start a new story, but the intervening period is worth its weight as well. This is a time of awesome possibility. Of truly immeasurable potential. Almost anything could happen in that magical moment, and even if the book I eventually resolve to read is rubbish, that doesn't detract from the thrill of the decision.

But picking isn't easy, is it? Sure, some recent releases demand our immediate attention. Mostly, though—for me at least—there are simply so many exciting options that I can spend as long settling on one novel over all the others as it takes me to read it.

Have you ever struggled similarly? Well, this column certainly isn't going to help any!

In fact, it is my sincerest dream that the British Genre Fiction Focus will make these decisions still more difficult, because of course there are other worlds than those we know. However widely read we may be, there are other authors... other novels... and other issues to consider. 
To wit, this column exists to fill a hole we noticed in our coverage of all things weird and wonderful: news and new releases from the British genre fiction industry 
[...] 
So what do I have for you in the first edition of Tor.com’s edifying new feature? Well, fittingly, the British Genre Fiction Focus begins with news of a new genre fiction imprint, a new trilogy, two new covers and a whole new way of doing business.  
"That’s in addition to discussion of an excellent selection of promising new novels—including a previously self-published sensation, a standalone scientific romance with the DNA of the weird, and the belated beginning of an epic fantasy saga that’s done very well for itself in North America—all of which will be released in the UK this week."
I had a simply terrific time putting together the inaugural instalment of the British Genre Fiction Focus, and I'm already rounding up news for next week's edition, and thinking about which new releases might make the cut. However, there's nothing hard or fast about the feature at this stage: in fact I would welcome any and all comments about form or content.

But say you don't have any constructive criticism to make. Well... great! It's early doors, of course, but this new column is all about the conversation, so whether you want to ask for clarification or more information, profess your undying adoration for a particular author, or take me to task about something silly I've said, please... feel free.


I'd encourage you to send in tips, too. I'll certainly try to stay on top of the biggest developments in my fair nation's speculative fiction industry, and attempt to keep tabs on the UK's most notable new books, but alas, I am only one man.

Hard to believe, but I've been reviewing books for Tor.com for nearly two years now. That said, this marks the first time I've committed to contributing something of such magnitude, so I would be massively obliged if you could show your support in some way for the British Genre Fiction Focus.

Thanks in advance! :)

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Cover Identity | Tomorrow, Terrain

I loved, loved, loved Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, and though I'm sorry to say no news has been forthcoming about a follow-up, over on LiveJournal the other day, Genevieve Valentine unveiled the cover of her new novella:


Intriguing, isn't it? Though the upper half of Richard Anderson's artwork is, alas, rather bland.

I don't think there'll be a printed edition, but be that as it may, you can bet your bottom dollar I'll be reading Terrain on the appointed day. Which is to say sometime this spring, when Valentine's new novella will be available to read gratis on Tor.com. Hooray!

Speaking of which, did you know that there's a free e-book featuring some of the finest short fiction recently published on said site?

Well, there is. And it's brilliant. The 2012 edition of Some of the Best From Tor.com showcases stories from a who's-who of the genre's foremost proponents, including Gene Wolfe, Rachel Swirsky, Elizabeth Bear, Paul Cornell, Michael Swanwick and at least as many awesome authors again. 

It's available from the evil empire that is Amazon as we speak. DRM-free, even! Grab it here if you're in the UK, and here if you're based Stateside.

That should keep you occupied this evening.

As for tomorrow? Well, please do stay tuned to The Speculative Scotsman. You might not think it to look at the blog, but I've been busier than ever since I came home after the holidays. Relatedly, I have some incredibly exciting news to share with you all shortly... of a new series I've come to consider a sort of spiritual successor to The BoSS, which I know an alarming number of you have a certain fondness for.

More on the morn!

Monday, 14 January 2013

Book Review | The Twyning by Terence Blacker


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This is the story of Efren, a young ratling born into the Court of Tasting, in the kingdom of rats below the city streets. The kingdom is in turmoil after the death of the old king, assassinated by a human scientist, Dr Henry Ross-Gibbon. Obsessed by an ambition to exterminate all rats, the doctor is assisted by Dogboy, an abandoned thirteen-year-old with a gift for understanding animals. Soon a war to the death rages between the rat kingdom and its mortal enemy: humankind.

Hurt and alone, Efren finds shelter with Dogboy and his friend Caz, a runaway eleven-year-old girl. And between these unlikely allies, a spark is ignited — first of communication, then of hope.

This tumultuous story of creatures caught up in a pitiless war transcends the barriers between animals and humans. What Watership Down did for rabbits, The Twyning will do for the kingdom of rats.


***

Riddle me this, readers: what sees you when you're sleeping? What knows when you're awake? What's never more than six feet away, and sometimes carries plague?

That's right! I'm talking about rats. Dirty rotten rodents in the eyes of most folks. But not Terence Blacker's, apparently. His new novel promises to do for these creeping creatures what Watership Down did for rabbit warrens the world over... or else, that's what the publicity suggests. I'd like to suggest an alternative, because to me, The Twyning read more like Redwall with rats. Or rather Redwall with more rats.

There are, however, humans in The Twyning too. Caz and Dogboy are forgotten orphans (complete with horrible histories) who live together in a tip. To pay for the pies they need to stay alive, the caregiver of the pair does odd jobs for an affable rat-catcher, as well as a superior scientist who has made the beasts of the underworld his life's work. Whilst still peripheral, Dogboy's Dickensian adventures - in an ageless English setting, no less - intersect with our actual protagonist's narrative in a more meaningful way, I dare say, than the distractions that come courtesy of Caz.

If not one or the other, then, who is our hero? Well... it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to Efren, of the kingdom beneath our feet:
"A young apprentice whose past was a mystery, whose future was uncertain but whose present was always trouble. [Efren] was too undisciplined to be a taster, too small to be a warrior, too restless to work in the dustier Courts of History, Translation, Strategy or Prophecy. He was something of an outsider even among the other rats of his age. 
"It was said that his father had escaped from a prison in the world above. Certainly the dash of white between his ears, like the crest of a bird, suggested that some rogue blood, a hint of fragility, ran through his veins. 
"Yet there was nothing fearful or weak about this apprentice. He had the oddity of a fragile but none of its dependence on other rats." (p.6)
Never mind the foolish humans: Efren is this novel's real draw. He's a courageous little rodent who dares to doubt the doublethink of his fearless new leader. Having essentially seized control of the kingdom, Jeniel immediately implements a rather Orwellian regime change, beginning with the word:
"Certain words had entered everyday discussions, having first been heard in the speeches of Queen Jeniel. When spoken by the Queen, they had seemed casual. Then those who were close to her at court began to use them. After a while they had become a useful way of displaying loyalty to the new regime, of showing that you were acceptable in the new kingdom. 
"'Unvigilant', 'security', 'emergency', 'modern', 'safety from fear', 're-education', 'race loyalty': I knew what these phrases meant — or rather what they should mean. Now, though, I saw they had another meaning. They were a secret code among those who belonged at court. 
"Those who used them possessed race loyalty. 
"Those who did not were being unvigilant. 
"The few who were foolish enough to ask questions were almost certainly in urgent need of re-education."(p.128)
Thus, the court considers Efren a terrorist, and disowns him for his disobedience. Freed in this fashion from his former responsibilities, he escapes to the world above, to find true love in the form of a fragile — a pet rat, per The Twyning's terminology. But before the troubled couple can consecrate their relationship, Malaika - who has taken up with Caz, as it happens - Malaika alerts Efren to the greatest threat the kingdom has ever faced: a city-wide rat hunt, masterminded by Dogboy's ambitious employers.

With this knowledge comes a choice: before it's too late for all involved, the outsider Efren must decide where his loyalties lie. Should he save the kingdom, corrupt as it has become? Or let his friends perish alongside his enemies?

The Twyning rattles along these exciting lines for perhaps its first half, and there are several such moments in the final section as well. Sadly, the bloated middle of Blacker's book - that part of the entire which relies on the humans instead of Efren - is substantially less successful. One chance meeting follows another, and another, until what credibility the author has earned is soon spent; The Twyning begins to seem contrived, and I fear this feeling persists even after the intermediate act.

Furthermore, a few story beats feel forced, several characters fall flat, and Blacker's decision to alternate between the past and the present tense serves no particular purpose. Meanwhile, the horrendous sense of hysteria so powerfully evoked through the opening is disappointingly defused; it is all but abandoned, in fact, in favour of a far less impactful narrative.

Given all this, it's safe to say mistakes were made. But you know what? I still had a fine time with The Twyning. Indeed, Blacker succeeds more often than not. His worldbuilding is brilliant; his prose is mostly potent; his set-pieces are tortuously tense; and though it revolves around one of the animal kingdom's least appealing species, on the whole his story is surprisingly charming. Some of the concepts underpinning it are simply superb, not least the titular twyning — a mistake of nature, sustained as a symbol:
"Their tails had become inextricably entangled. As they had grown, the knot of living tissue that was at their centre melded and fused together so that, with adulthood, each of them was less an individual rat than a limb on a greater shared body, a spoke on a wheel of flesh. 
[...] 
"The Twyning expresses life's mystery. Unable to move in any one direction except at an awkward, complicated shuffle, it has its own kind of strength, for nothing terrifies a human more than the sight of rats, helpless, bound together, yet powerful." (pp.5-6)
So. Will The Twyning single-handedly render rats as attractive as rabbits? I think not, no... though the animals Richard Adams leveraged in his classic narrative certainly had something of a head start in that regard. These rodents simply can't compete. But put aside cuteness, and you'll find theirs is yet a darn charming yarn.

...

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

***

The Twyning
by Terence Blacker

UK Publication: January 2013, Head of Zeus

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Friday, 11 January 2013

Film Review | Sinister, dir. Scott Derrickson


Perhaps it's a lack of imagination on my part, but I cannot conceive of a trope more typical of the horror genre than the haunted house. In film and in literature, there exists a rich tradition of outwardly unblemished human habitats which the shadow of some ancient evil or recent violence has taken a secret shining to — and for good reason.

That darkness could impress itself upon a place, to play out again and again over the years on anyone who dares in their ignorance or their innocence to set foot in these sacred spaces... it's a powerful idea. One that we are immediately, even intimately familiar with, such that the haunted house requires only a slight suspension of disbelief on our part, and the most minute alterations to the classic narrative which invariably accompanies it can affect play in a major way.

Nowadays, however, we have haunted children, haunted hills, haunted histories and so on - hell, relatively recently I read and reviewed Michael Koryta's So Cold the River, which was about a haunted bottle of mineral water, if you can credit it - and with this expansion of horror's horizons, the archetypal haunted house has begun to look a little long in the tooth. I dare say there's life left in the old dog yet - see my high hopes for Adam Nevill's House of Small Shadows, coming Halloween 2013 - but give me a new idea over even an innovative spin on a predictable proposition any day of the week.


I don't know if Sinister represents a new idea, exactly - its core conceit, which is to say the haunted image (the haunted film, in fact) rather recalls Ringu - but at its best, it feels as fresh as it is ultimately familiar.

It's been a decade since true crime writer Ellison Oswalt had an actual hit on his hands, and with two point four children to support, he understands that there is but one last chance for literary lightning to strike twice. Failing that, a life of editing textbooks at best awaits. So motivated, our author, ably played by an edgy Ethan Hawke, uproots the Oswalts a final time. They move into a house which was recently the scene of a macabre multiple murder - the very uncanny hanging with which Sinister begins - though Ashley, Trevor and Tracy know little of this.

The weather seems to be with Ellison when, whilst unpacking, he comes across a box of home movies in the attic: Super 8 snuff films, after a fashion, documenting the deaths here in the Oswalt's new home — as well as a series of similarly sinister killings across the country. Sensing an extraordinary story, he opts to investigate them himself instead of alerting the proper authorities.

But when things begin to go bump in the night - when his son starts sleepwalking and his daughter takes to drawing pictures of the last tenants' little girl - Ellison realises that there may be more to these vile crimes than he had imagined, even in the darkest of his dreams.


Aside the miscasting of newcomer Juliet Rylance as Ellison's partner, who has little to do other than make ultimatums anyway, Sinister's actors are absolutely adequate. The kids aren't as central to the terror as you might suspect, given the genre, which is as well; it allows Hawke to shoulder most of the movie's most potent moments, and as aforementioned, he does so solidly. I hardly thought about his role in Dead Poets Society at all!

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Scott Derrickson directs. A fledgling filmmaker most notable, I suppose, for The Exorcism of Emily Rose, he also remade The Day the Earth Stood Still as a thankless Keanu Reeves vehicle, and developed the fifth Hellraiser film, Inferno. I'll say that he equips himself better here than he ever has in the past... but then poor direction has rarely been the ruin of his previous pictures. 

Simply put, Sinister is blessed with a better script than the rest of Derrickson's efforts were, thanks to a screenplay co-written with C. Robert Cargill. If this unnerving experience is any sort of barometer for his impending debut - Dreams and Shadows, out in the US and the UK at the end of February - I expect smart, if not necessarily seamless modern horror.

The film is far from perfect, then, but I had a fair bit of fun with it. Neatly conceived, competently composed and respectably well executed, Sinister seems to me one of the strongest scary movies of recent years. You may interpret that phrase in any number of ways, so go knowing that it's more insidious than Insidious, and approximately ten times as interesting as The Possession.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Book Review | Lady of the Shades by Darren Shan


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

Or get the Kindle edition 

Ed, an American author on the hunt for a story for his next book, arrives in London looking for inspiration. A stranger in a strange city, he's haunted by a deadly secret that refuses to stay buried, and no matter how hard he tries he cannot escape the manifest sins of his past.

What Ed wants is answers, what he finds is something he definitely didn't bargain for: the beautiful and untouchable Andeanna Menderes. Andeanna is a woman who is dangerously bound to one of London's most notorious crime lords, and if they are caught together it could mean death for them both.

Ensnared in an illicit affair that can only be conducted in the shadows, Ed's world is turned upside down as a series of shattering revelations blurs the line between what's real and what's not...

***

Lady of the Shades has been a long time coming.

In a pointed postscript tacked on to the short horror novel we're going to talk about today, young adult author Darren Shan acknowledges that he began writing Lady of the Shades in 1999. This, then, is the end result of thirteen years of blood, sweat and tears.

An ill omen, one wonders, or a flourish of metafictional foreboding?

In the grand tradition of uninspired writers everywhere, Lady of the Shades' central character is exactly that: an uninspired writer, searching for a suitable subject for his next novel. To that end, American horror author Ed Sieveking - whose work has been a modest success at best - has come to London to facilitate his research into the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion.

Here, he becomes fast friends with a fan, who sets Ed up with a number of ideal interviewees — not to mention an invite to the party where he meets the love of his life, Deleena Emerson, AKA Andeanna Menderes. At this early stage in Lady of the Shades, our man has cause to ponder his good fortune:
"A book that's shaping up nicely. A relationship with a beautiful lady who brings out the best in me. And a good friend. It's a far cry from my usual lonely, passionless life. For years I've limped along, nursing grudges, bitter at the world for what it did to me, haunted by my ghosts, desperately searching for proof that the spirits are real, that I'm not insane, struggling to hold on to whatever thing slivers of sanity I can claim to be in possession of. Now I can see light for the first time in ages. Maybe love will cure me of my ills and banish the spectre of the ghosts." (p.55)
Alas, a chaste affair later, the object of Ed's affection admits that she's married, and to make matters worse, her abusive husband is a lord of London's seedier side. However, our man has his secrets too, and after Ed finds it in his heart to forgive Andeanna, they put their heads and hearts together, and hatch a plan to break free, finally, from the ties - and the lies - that bind them.

Darren Shan is a household name amongst younger readers in Europe and the United Kingdom. Between them, his various series - including The Saga of Darren Shan, or Cirque Du Freak as it's known in North America - have sold in excess of 20 million copies. But like Lady of the Shades, his dubious debut, Ayuamarca - recently revamped and retitled Procession of the Dead - was for older folks. And again like his latest, which was begun in the same year as his first novel proper saw publication, it didn't work out terribly well.

It seems to me that Lady of the Shades' aspirations toward an adult audience are informed by one reason and one reason only: the book alludes to some comparatively harmless hanky-panky. Otherwise this is very much in the vein of Shan's more successful efforts, except with swears. It's short, simplistic, yet so far from straightforward that it may as well have emerged from the M. Night Shyamalan stable. Speaking of said devil, Lady of the Shades is sure to remind readers of one of Shyamalan's films in particular; I won't name names, except to say Shan's novel has not the gravitas or character of its brother from another mother.

What it has, in tumultuous abundance, is twists. Several fundamental shifts which occur over the course of Lady of the Shades, changing the novel's core focus. At the outset it put me in mind of Adam Nevill's Last Days, but soon it had become a romance, then a crime thriller, then a ghost story — and all this in the first 100 pages, in such quick succession that no one aspect of the entire has the opportunity to impress in itself, while cumulatively the book comes off as cobbled together.

In point of fact, Lady of the Shades is contrived, convoluted and occasionally cringe-worthy, but you know what? I don't regret reading it. It's a madcap melodrama with plain prose, plotting problems and poor pacing, yet every chapter comes complete with some surprise, and even if these are only slightly satisfying at the time, on the whole the ten-a-penny turns amount to a fairly hair-raising read.

As an author who cast a version of himself as the central character in the twelve book series with which he cemented his reputation, Darren Shan is not at all averse to breaking the fourth wall when the opportunity to do so arises. It often does in Lady of the Shades, but of all his self-reflexive assertions, this early example stayed with me particularly:
"I know I'm not the world's greatest writer - not even its greatest horror writer - but I'm determined to prove that I can make it, even if my books are lacklustre, thrill-free affairs, as one critic cruelly put it." (p.38)
For all its problems - and they are many and various, I'm afraid - that last, at least, is not a complaint one may make about Lady of the Shades. It is however a guilty pleasure at best. If you're so inclined, bear that in mind and you'll find it... fine.

... 

This review originally appeared, in a slightly altered form, on tor.com.

***

Lady of the Shades
by Darren Shan

UK Publication: August 2012, Orion

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