Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Book Review | Five Stories High ed. by Jonathan Oliver


Irongrove Lodge—a building with history; the very bricks and grounds imbued with the stories of those who have walked these corridors, lived in these rooms. These are the tales of an extraordinary house, a place that straddles our world and whatever lies beyond; a place that some are desperate to discover, and others to flee. At one time an asylum, at another a care home, sometimes simply a home.

The residents of Irongrove Lodge will learn that this house will change them, that the stories told here never go away. Of all who enter, only some will leave.

Multi-award-winning editor Jonathan Oliver has brought together five extraordinary writers to open the doors, revealing ghosts both past and present in a collection as intriguing as it is terrifying. Along with a linking narrative, this collection features five novellas by Nina Allan, Tade Thompson, K. J. Parker, Robert Shearman and Sarah Lotz.

***

The latest in a lengthening line of excellent collections edited by Jonathan Oliver, Five Stories High finds several of speculative fiction's best and brightest riffing on the same literary instrument: the haunted house. Not just any old haunted house, either, but one—Irongrove Lodge—shared by every player:
The house, like its surroundings, seemed quietly respectable, the largest and most prominent among a number of Georgian properties in the vicinity, flanked on one side by a ruddy-faced Victorian terrace, on the other by a 1930s mansion block built from the familiar yellow-grey London stock. [...] I could not rid myself of the idea that the house had, in some peculiar way, itself created the ramshackle and disparate landscape that now surrounded it, drawn the cloak of modern London securely about itself, to conceal its true purpose.
The particulars of its true purpose differ dramatically depending on which of the five authors involved in Five Stories High you ask, but although Nina Allan, K. J. Parker, Tade Thompson, Robert Shearman and Sarah Lotz diverge on the details, all agree that Irongrove Lodge is a home most hellish.

The aforementioned anthology puts its best foot forward by way of Nina Allan's 'Maggots,' the longest of the five works of fiction featured, and the least traditional. Herein, the writer of The Race follows a boy who becomes convinced that one of his relatives has been replaced:
On the 23rd October 1992, my aunt, Claire Bounsell, nee Wilton, briefly went missing in York during a weekend anniversary trip with her husband David. She reappeared again just minutes later, apparently unharmed. My aunt and uncle came home to Knutsford and went on with their lives. The incident has been mainly forgotten, but the person living as Claire Bounsell is not my aunt. She looks like my aunt, she speaks like my aunt. She has my aunt's memories and to any outside observer it would be impossible to tell the difference between my aunt and her replacement. No one, including her husband, family and twin children, appears to have noticed that anything is wrong. And yet there is no doubt in my mind that my aunt has been replaced by an impostor.
Whether Willy's conviction that Claire isn't herself—that she is, in fact, no more than a maggot—is symptomatic of a sickness of sorts or not, it dogs our narrator for ages. It ruins his first real relationship; it makes a decade of Christmases difficult; and going forward, it's foundation of a fascination that hounds him from the family home into the workplace and leads him, at the last, to Irongrove Lodge, where he'll have answers, if he wants them—albeit at an awful cost.

Sensitive yet unsettling, Allan's superlative story of simulation, of someone pretending to be someone else, is seamlessly succeeded by K. J. Parker's 'Priest Hole,' in which a shapeshifter living in Irongrove Lodge does whatever he can to get by following the loss of the lady he loved.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Book Review | Normal by Warren Ellis


There are two types of people who think professionally about the future: foresight strategists are civil futurists who think about geoengineering and smart cities and ways to evade Our Coming Doom; strategic forecasters are spook futurists, who think about geopolitical upheaval and drone warfare and ways to prepare clients for Our Coming Doom. The former are paid by nonprofits and charities, the latter by global security groups and corporate think tanks.

For both types, if you're good at it, and you spend your days and nights doing it, then it's something you can't do for long. Depression sets in. Mental illness festers. And if the abyss gaze takes hold there's only one place to recover: Normal Head, in the wilds of Oregon, within the secure perimeter of an experimental forest.

When Adam Dearden, a foresight strategist, arrives at Normal Head, he is desperate to unplug and be immersed in sylvan silence. But then a patient goes missing from his locked bedroom, leaving nothing but a pile of insects in his wake. A staff investigation ensues; surveillance becomes total. As the mystery of the disappeared man unravels in Warren Ellis's Normal, Adam uncovers a conspiracy that calls into question the core principles of how and why we think about the future--and the past, and thenow.

***

For all our whistle-blowing and brainstorming, for all our back-slapping and activist hacking, for all the awareness we've raised and for all the progress we've made—for all that, it's not going well, the world.

That, at least, is what Adam Dearden believes, and, as a futurist who's resided on both sides of the aisle, he should know. Knowing what he knows, though, doesn't mean he can do a damn thing about it. That frustration recently reached fever-pitch for him when, whilst working in Windhoek, he saw something he shouldn't have seen; something that sent him over the proverbial edge.
He was a futurist. [He] gazed into the abyss for a living. Do it long enough, and the abyss would gaze back into you. If the abyss did that for long enough, the people who paid you for your eyes would send you to Normal Head. The place was paid for by foundations and multinationals alike, together. Most of their human probes needed it, one way or another, in the end. His first thought, in fact, that night in Windhoek, was that he was going to end up in Normal if he couldn't keep his shit together. (p.16)
He couldn't, of course.

Built "on the bones of a town founded by a madman whose last recorded words were about its terrible lights," (p.12) Normal Head Research Station is a sanctuary of sorts for screwed-up spooks and strategists and such. There, anything that could coax out their crazy is contained: mobile phones are a no-no, social media is strictly prohibited, and you can only access the internet if you've demonstrated yourself relatively sensible.

Which leaves... what? Well, there are a few DVD box-sets to watch, a bundle of board games to play, I dare say, and acres of ancient forest to get lost in. Your only real responsibility, when you've been sent to Normal Head, is to get better—if only so you can go back to gazing into that infinite abyss. And Adam Dearden does want to get better. Alas, within hours of his arrival, he witnesses something that beggars belief; something so unsettling that it puts him in mind of the riot that was his ruination rather than the road to recovery.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Book Review | Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson


Union has come. The Community is now the largest nation in Europe; trains run there from as far afield as London and Prague. It is an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity.

So what is the reason for a huge terrorist outrage? Why do the Community and Europe meet in secret, exchanging hostages? And who are Les Coureurs des Bois?

Along with a motley crew of strays and mafiosi and sleeper agents, Rudi sets out to answer these questions – only to discover that the truth lies both closer to home and farther away than anyone could possibly imagine.

***

Both in Britain and abroad, so much has changed in the years since the release of Dave Hutchinson's Arthur C. Clarke Award nominated Europe in Autumn that the mind positively boggles. In 2014 I described its depiction of a Europe decimated by division "as plausible as it is novel," but I'll be damned if it isn't beginning to look visionary.

What shape the differences democracy has recently wrought will take is, as yet, anyone's guess. Everything's up for grabs, not least the ideals we hold nearest and dearest—just as they are in the world of the Fractured Europe sequence: a manic mosaic of "nations and polities and duchies and sanjaks and earldoms and principalities and communes." (p.12)
The situation was, if anything, even worse the further East you went. Beyond Rus—European Russia—and Sibir was a patchwork of republics and statelets and nations and kingdoms and khanates and 'stans which had been crushed out of existence by History, reconstituted, fragmented, reinvented, fragmented again, absorbed, reabsorbed and recreated." (p.43)
But that's not all—hell, that's not even the half of it—as readers of Europe at Midnight will recall. That "mad story about a family of wizards and a map" elaborated brilliantly on the existence of a place called the Community: an impossible plane of space modelled on idyllic little England. Next to no one knew about it till now, but having kept its distance for decades, the Community is finally making its presence felt by way of a revolutionary railway.

The Line is being laid all across the continent, connecting the Community to the real world in a real sense, and although most folks don't mind, there are, of course, those—now more than ever there are those—who want to keep the outsiders out, and are willing to do whatever it takes to make their isolationist case. To wit, Europe in Winter opens on an awful atrocity, as a train packed with passengers travelling along that mathemagical track is attacked.

You'd think the authorities would come a-running with such loss of life rife, but Europe is so splintered that no one of its gaggle of governments wants anything to do with it. Even the innumerable NGOs are steering out of fear, such that solving the problem, if it's going to be solved at all, falls, finally, to the Coureur and erstwhile cook Hutchinson introduced us to in Europe in Autumn.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Book Review | The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood


Pretty Lizzie Higgs is gone, burned to death on her own hearth—but was she really a changeling, as her husband insists? Albie Mirralls met his cousin only once, in 1851, within the grand glass arches of the Crystal Palace, but unable to countenance the rumours that surround her murder, he leaves his young wife in London and travels to Halfoak, a village steeped in superstition.

Albie begins to look into Lizzie's death, but in this place where the old tales hold sway and the hidden people supposedly roam, answers are slippery and further tragedy is just a step away...

***

In the beginning, a bang: a promising and potentially explosive prologue, or a scene that's suggestive of all the fun to come. That's a fine way for a story—especially a scary story—to start. But you've got to be smart. You don't want to give yourself nowhere to go by starting the show with the showstopper, and I dare say that's exactly what Alison Littlewood did with her debut.

Chilling and thrilling in equal measure, and at once creepy and weepy, A Cold Season was a hell of a hard act to follow, and although both Path of Needles and The Unquiet House were reasonably well received, nothing Littlewood has written since said has surpassed its macabre mastery. Certainly not last year's tedious sequel. Happily, her newest novel rights almost every one of A Cold Silence's throng of wrongs. I'd go farther than that, in fact; I'd assert that The Hidden People is the aforementioned author's most accomplished effort yet—if not necessarily her most accessible.

Albert Mirralls—Albie to his nearest and dearest—only met his lovely cousin once, at the Great Exhibition of 1851 that saw the unveiling of that transparent marvel, the Crystal Palace, but little Lizzie Higgs, with her sweet songs and her sure steps, made such an impression on our man in those moments that when he hears of her murder more than a decade later, he immediately leaves the life he's built behind in order to address her death.

In Halfoak, a superstitious village arranged around a great, twisted tree, Albie is told the whole of the sordid story his sophisticated father had only hinted at. Little Lizzie had gone on to marry James Higgs, a shoemaker, and though they had been happy in their house on the hill, their inability to bear children became the talk of the town in time. Higgs, for his part, had an unusual idea why: he thought his wonderful wife had been replaced by a changeling. As the local publican puts it:
"The good folk, as they call them—mainly from fear, I think—the quiet ones, the hidden people—they're fading, you see? [...] Their race is weak. And so they take changelings—human children, or women who can bear them, to strengthen their lines. And in their place they leave one of their own, worn-out and old, bewitched to look like the one they're meant to replace, though of course they do not thrive; they soon sicken or die. Or they leave a stock of wood, similarly enchanted, and with similar outcome. These changelings can be identified by their weaknesses, or some disfigurement, or by a sweet temper turning of a sudden into querulous and unnatural ways. They might refuse to speak or eat. A child might become a milksop or a squalling affliction. A good wife may be transformed into a shrew. There are many ways of telling." (p.89)
Tragically, the recent disappearance of a wooden broom and the entirely understandable turning of Lizzie's temper was all it took to convince Higgs that his wife was not the woman he married. To wit, he tried to drive the fairy from his home. He tried iron; he tried herbs; and, all else having failed, he tried fire. "And she was consumed by it." (p.13)

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Book Review | Thin Air by Michelle Paver


The Himalayas, 1935.

Kangchenjunga. Third-highest peak on earth. Greatest killer of them all.

Five Englishmen set off from Darjeeling, determined to conquer the sacred summit. But courage can only take them so far—and the mountain is not their only foe.

As the wind dies, the dread grows. Mountain sickness. The horrors of extreme altitude. A past that will not stay buried.

And sometimes, the truth does not set you free.

***

It was on the back of the award-winning, six-part Chronicles of Ancient Darkness that Michelle Paver put out Dark Matter. A ghost story inspired by her lifelong love of the Arctic, it attracted flattering comparisons to the work of such giants of the genre as M. R. James and Susan Hill, and became, before long, a bona fide bestseller.

That the author has now turned her hand to another tale in the same vise-like vein can hardly be seen as surprising; what can is the fact that it's taken her six years and another complete children's series, namely the Gods and Warriors novels. But given the strength of Thin Air, a short, stirring and altogether masterful narrative set on the sheer slopes of the world's third-highest hill, if it takes another decade for Paver to perfect its successor, that's a decade I'll be willing to wait.

It's 1935, and mountaineering has the nation by the nape. Our protagonist Stephen Pearce has always been a keen climber, but he certainly wasn't supposed to be conquering Kangchenjunga this spring. He was meant to be getting married and starting a family, but something about the life he could see stretched out ahead of him—and the death, yes—didn't feel quite right, so when his big brother Kits basically begged him to follow in the footsteps of Edmund Lyell on an expedition up one of the Himalaya's highest peaks, Stephen said yes.

Yet Kits' request wasn't exactly selfless. He needed a medic for the expedition to go ahead, and if securing one meant upending his younger sibling's entire existence, then that was a price Kits was only too happy to pay to win the day. As Stephen reasons:
I know my brother. A couple of years ago, someone came upon Irvine's ice axe on Everest's north-west ridge, and Kits sulked for weeks. Why wasn't he the one to find it and get all the glory? That's what he's after now: relics of the Lyell Expedition; and a chance to complete what the great man began, by being the first in the world to conquer an eight thousand-metre peak—with the added lustre of planting the Union Jack on the summit, and beating the bloody Germans. (p.19)
Brothers they may be, but Stephen and Kits haven't always—or even often—gotten on, and for all that they're on their best behaviour at the outset of the trek, as the weather closes in and things threaten to get grim, the tension between them fairly flares.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Book Review | A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers


Lovelace was once merely a ship's artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has to start over in a synthetic body, in a world where her kind are illegal. She's never felt so alone.

But she's not alone, not really. Pepper, one of the engineers who risked life and limb to reinstall Lovelace, is determined to help her adjust to her new world. Because Pepper knows a thing or two about starting over.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that, huge as the galaxy may be, it's anything but empty.

***

Life is a lot of things. It's intense and it's tedious; it's exhausting as often as it's exhilarating. Sometimes it's kind of delightful; sometimes it's quite, quite terrifying. "None of us have a rule book," as Pepper puts it. "None of us know what we're doing here." (p.317) But we each have our own ideas, don't we? We all have our aspirations, our particular purposes. Some of us want to start families. Some of us want to make successes of ourselves. Some of us want to see the world. Some of us want to pave the way for change.

Insofar as she ever wanted anything, Lovelace—the AI formerly installed on the spaceship which went The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet in Becky Chambers' radiant debut—Lovelace wanted to make the humans in her hull happy. That's why she opted to be installed in a body kit:
At the time, it had seemed like the best course, the cleanest option. She had come into existence where another mind should have been. She wasn't what the Wayfarer crew was expecting, or hoping for. Her presence upset them, and that meant she had to go. That was why she'd left—not because she'd wanted to, not because she'd truly understood what it would mean, but because the crew was upset, and she was the reason for it. [...] She'd left because it was in her design to be accommodating, to put others first, to make everyone else comfortable, no matter what. (p.112)
But what of her comfort?

That's the question at the centre of A Closed and Common Orbit, the sensitive sequel of sorts to the novel that was nominated for any number of awards and accolades, including the Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction, the Tiptree Award, the Kitschies Golden Tentacle and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. I say "sequel of sorts" because Chambers' new book only features a few of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet's characters, and isn't in the least bit interested the fate of the Wayfarer. It is, in other words, entirely standalone—unlike so many of the struggling sequels that insist on this—although a passing familiarity with the larger canvas of said series is sure to prove a plus.

In any case, Lovelace. Just imagine, for a moment: if life, despite its heights, is still sometimes too much for us—we who have been here, trying and failing and feeling for years—then what must it be like for someone such as she, someone who has never even been called upon to pretend to be more than a program?

Monday, 24 October 2016

Book Review | Dark Made Dawn by J. P. Smythe


There was one truth on Australia, the derelict ship on which Chan was born and raised: you fight or you die. Usually both.

But everything on Australia was a lie. Abandoned and alone, Chan was forced to live a terrible existence on the fringes of society, Australia's only survivor after a terrible crash-landing on Earth.

But Chan discovered she was not alone. Together with the unlikeliest of allies, Chan carved out a place for herself on Earth. And now the time has come: she's finally found a reason to keep going. But friends have become enemies, and enemies have become something worse. It's time for Chan to create her own truths, and discover a life beyond fighting and death: a life beyond Australia.

***

The Girl Who Fell to Earth finds her feet in Dark Made Dawn, the vital concluding volume of the Arthur C. Clarke Award nominated Australia Trilogy by J. P. Smythe.

It's been a long road for Chan, who murdered her mother mere moments after we met her, crash-landed the prison ship she'd lived on her whole life a little later, and has had to do a whole host of other awful things simply to survive since—but her hellish journey is almost at an end. She's been reunited with her former frenemy, Rex; they've found employment, of a sort, amongst the automatons of walled-off Washington; and the nearby nomads have offered them a home away from home. In short, Chan's dreamed-of destination—a world in which she can be with Mae, come what may—is finally in sight, and I'll be damned if it doesn't look bright!

Then again, it's always darkest before the dawn, and as liveable as her life has been of late, Chan hasn't forgotten how horrible it was as of the offing. She remembers, especially, losing everything after she gave so much of herself to get off the Australia:
I was scared, living in a hovel, subsisting on whatever I could find or whatever Ziegler gave me. I had nothing. Now I can bury those memories, mostly. Those feelings. I've got something that feels like control over my life these days. I have a place in this city. A job. A role. A purpose. 
And so does Rex. 
It doesn't matter that our job is doing what they don't want others to do, or what the others won't. It's still ours. (pp.28-29)
Through their heavily-augmented handler, Hoyle—who just so happens to be sleeping with Chan—she and Rex have blackmailed and intimidated their way through the worst that Washington has to offer.

The job has hardly been a joy, obviously, but it has been a necessary evil. It's helped our poor pair fit in in a city that values obedience over everything else. Chan, for her part, has needed the leeway that being a good citizen has allowed her in order to find some trace of Mae, who was almost a daughter to her on the Australia. But when she and Rex are asked to outright assassinate their next target, they both know that the time has come to either poop or get off the pot...

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Book Review | A City Dreaming by Daniel Polansky


M is a drifter with a sharp tongue, few scruples, and limited magical ability, who would prefer drinking artisanal beer to involving himself in the politics of the city. Alas, in the infinite nexus of the universe which is New York, trouble is a hard thing to avoid, and now a rivalry between the city's two queens threatens to make the Big Apple go the way of Atlantis. To stop it, M will have to call in every favor, waste every charm, and blow every spell he's ever acquired - he might even have to get out of bed before noon.

Enter a world of wall street wolves, slumming scenesters, desperate artists, drug-induced divinities, pocket steam-punk universes, and hipster zombies. Because the city never sleeps, but is always dreaming.

***

He gave grimdark fantasy a knee in the rear with the wickedly witty Low Town trilogy. He tackled epic fantasy to tremendous effect across Those Above and Those Below. Now, as he turns his attention to urban fantasy by way of his brilliantly bold new book, one wonders: can Daniel Polansky no wrong?

That remains to be seen, I suppose, but he's certainly never done anything as resoundingly right as A City Dreaming. An assemblage of loosely-connected vignettes as opposed to a work of longform fiction—although it's also that, at the last—A City Dreaming takes some getting into, but once you're in, it's a win-win. Hand on heart, I haven't read anything like it in my life.

The first couple of chapters serve to introduce M, a rogueish reprobate who straddles "the line between curmudgeonly cute and outright prickish" (p.246) and can do magic, as it happens. "It would help if you did not think of it as magic," however, as our "incandescently arrogant" (p.149) narrator notes:
M had certainly long since ceased to do so. He thought of it as being in good with the Management, like a regular at a neighborhood bar. You come to a place long enough, talk up the chick behind the counter, after a while she'll look the other way if you have a smoke inside, let you run up your tab, maybe even send over some free nuts on occasion. Magic was like that, except the bar was existence and the laws being bent regarded thermodynamics and weak nuclear force. (p.1)
When M is finally called upon to pay the tab that he's run up (and up and up) in the pub that is the entirety of Paris, he decides, after some serious soul-searching over several such snacks, that "it might be time to toddle off" (p.6) to his old stomping ground in the States, because he believes he's been gone for long enough that the many enemies he made there have probably forgotten him.

He's wrong on that count, of course. But M's enemies aren't his most immediate problem. On the contrary, his most immediate problem, as he sees it, is how popular he seems to be.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Book Review | The Warren by Brian Evenson


X doesn't have a name. He thought he had one or many but that might be the result of the failing memories of the personalities imprinted within him. Or maybe he really is called X.

He's also not as human as he believes himself to be.

But when he discovers the existence of another—above ground, outside the protection of the Warren—X must learn what it means to be human, or face the destruction of their two species.

***

Area X meets Duncan Jones' first and finest movie Moon in a marvellously mystifying novella that wants to know what it means to be human in a world where people can be constructed like sculptures shaped from clay.

X is one such person; the last in a line of such people, even, although almost all of his predecessors, helpfully arranged alphabetically, persist within him. "X was the most recent, the closest to the surface; there was nobody beyond him. And yet he was folded in on himself, damaged." (p.55) Being more metaphysical than physiological, that damage is on display from word one of The Warren, which purports to be a record—though it is far from reliable—of X's pitiable existence:
I am writing on paper because I have seen the way that sectors of the monitor and other recording devices can become corrupted and whole selves, as a result, are lost. I am trying to leave behind a record that will survive. Apparently, judging from the passages that I do not remember but which are nonetheless written, I am not the only part of me writing this. (p.18)
Never mind for the moment our protagonist's matter of fact manner. Clearly, "something is quite wrong," (p.62) and that something has to do with the many competing personalities X carries, at least one of which is unwilling to lie back and think of Britain. "I am working against myself," it dawns on X on the day when he wakes halfway out of the Warren. "There are parts of me ready to betray me, and I no longer have clear control over them, particularly when I sleep." (p.38)

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Book Review | Death's End by Cixin Liu


Half a century after the Doomsday Battle, the uneasy balance of Dark Forest Deterrence keeps the Trisolaran invaders at bay. Earth enjoys unprecedented prosperity due to the infusion of Trisolaran knowledge. With human science advancing and the Trisolarans adopting Earth culture, it seems that the two civilizations can co-exist peacefully as equals without the terrible threat of mutually assured annihilation. But peace has also made humanity complacent.

Cheng Xin, an aerospace engineer from the 21st century, awakens from hiber­nation in this new age. She brings knowledge of a long-forgotten program dating from the start of the Trisolar Crisis, and her presence may upset the delicate balance between two worlds. Will humanity reach for the stars or die in its cradle?

***

The translation and publication of Cixin Liu's Three-Body books has been a singular highlight of the science fiction scene in recent years. The Hugo Award-winning opening salvo of said saga took in physics, farming, philosophy and first contact, and that was just for starters. The world was wondrous, the science startling, and although the author's choice of "a man named 'humanity'" as that narrative's central character led to a slight lack of life, The Three-Body Problem promised profundity.

A year later, The Dark Forest delivered. Bolstered by "a complex protagonist, an engrossing, high-stakes story and a truly transcendent setting, The Dark Forest [was] by every measure a better book" than The Three-Body Problem. Not only did it account for its predecessor's every oversight, it also embiggened the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy brilliantly and explored a series of ideas that astonished even seasoned science fiction readers.

But "no banquet was eternal. Everything had an end. Everything." (p.27) And when something you care about does approach that point, all you can do is hope it ends well.

Death's End does.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Book Review | The Gradual by Christopher Priest


In the latest novel from one of the UK's greatest writers we return to the Dream Archipelago, a string of islands that no one can map or explain.

Alesandro Sussken is a composer, and we see his life as he grows up in a fascist state constantly at war with another equally faceless opponent. His brother is sent off to fight; his family is destroyed by grief. Occasionally Alesandro catches glimpses of islands in the far distance from the shore, and they feed into his music—music for which he is feted.

But all knowledge of the other islands is forbidden by the junta, until he is unexpectedly sent on a cultural tour. And what he discovers on his journey will change his perceptions of his country, his music and the ways of the islands themselves.

Playing with the lot of the creative mind, the rigours of living under war and the nature of time itself, this is Christopher Priest at his absolute best.

***

Pro tip, folks: never, ever, ever ask artists where they get their ideas from. It's not a trade secret or anything so sensational—it's just a silly question in the eyes of the aforementioned, and at best, silly questions beget silly answers, such as the bit about the Bognor Regis-based ideas dealer Neil Gaiman used to use. The fact of the matter is that art is inherently personal, and people, whatever their superficial similarities, are completely unique, so what inspires one person in one way isn't likely to inspire another, and if it does, it'll be differently.

That's just one of the lessons the eventually-fĂȘted composer Alesandro Sussken learns in The Gradual: a dreamlike diatribe on the source of song and scene and story and so on, arranged, somewhat like a literary symphony, around one man's lifelong journey through the tides of time.

Like The Islanders and The Adjacent and a bunch of other Christopher Priest books before it, The Gradual takes place in the Dream Archipelago, which is to say "the largest geographical feature in the world, comprising literally millions of islands." The Susskens—a family of musicians, mostly—live on Glaund, which is at war with Faiandland, and has been for as long as anyone can remember, for reasons no one can rightly recall. This sort of thing is not uncommon in the Dream Archipelago, so Alesandro doesn't take it too personally... that is, until his older brother Jacj is enlisted.

Years pass. Indeed, decades do:
Jacj's absence was eternally in the background of everything I did. Whatever had happened to him gave me feelings of dread, misery, horror, helplessness, but you cannot work up these emotions every day, every hour. I feared for him, was terrified of the news that I felt would come inevitably: he was dead, he had gone missing in action, he was horrifically wounded, he had deserted and been shot by officers. All these I pondered.
Yet the time went by... 
As time tends to. Inevitably, Alesandro has to direct his energies elsewhere, and perhaps it's the fact that Jacj may yet be out there somewhere that leads to our hero's first fascination with the world outwith his.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Book Review | Revenger by Alastair Reynolds


The galaxy has seen great empires rise and fall. Planets have shattered and been remade. Amongst the ruins of alien civilisations, building our own from the rubble, humanity still thrives. And there are vast fortunes to be made, if you know where to find them...

Captain Rackamore and his crew do. It's their business to find the tiny, enigmatic worlds which have been hidden away, booby-trapped, surrounded with layers of protection—and to crack them open for the ancient relics and barely-remembered technologies inside. But while they ply their risky trade with integrity, not everyone is so scrupulous.

Adrana and Fura Ness are the newest members of Rackamore's crew, signed on to save their family from bankruptcy. Only Rackamore has enemies, and there might be more waiting for them in space than adventure and fortune: the fabled and feared Bosa Sennen in particular.

Revenger is a science fiction adventure story set in the rubble of our solar system in the dark, distant future—a tale of space pirates, buried treasure and phantom weapons, of unspeakable hazards and single-minded heroism... and of vengeance.

***

Fresh off of finishing the magnificently ambitious Poseidon's Children trilogy and collaborating with fellow science fiction superstar Stephen Baxter on the rather marvellous Medusa Chronicles, Alastair Reynolds returns with a stirring story about a pair of sisters who enlist on a spaceship and set about looting the rubble of a ruined universe. Featuring dollops of derring-do and not a few space battles too, Revenger might be Reynold's most accessible solo effort yet, but there's no dearth of darkness in this light-looking bite of a book.

The universe has seen better days, I dare say. Aeons on from the forging, so many civilisations have risen and fallen that the current population of the Congregation live every day as if it's apt to be their last. Piracy is inevitably prevalent, but rather than stealing from one another, most pirates plunder the remnants of ancient races from the hundreds of thousands of dead worlds distributed in the distance.

Most pirates, but not all. Not Bosa Sennen, who has carved out a terrible legend for herself in the blood and the bodies of those unfortunate enough to have found themselves near the nightmarish Nightjammer: a sneaky little spaceship with black sails, according to the tales, the better to board you before you know it.

Pol Rackamore is one of the scant few souls to have come face to face with Bosa Sennen and survived, though not without paying a perilous price: the loss of his dear daughter. He'll see her again before Revenger is at an end, however—as will Adrana and Arafura Ness, the well-to-do young women at the centre of Reynolds' enticing text.

When said sisters, so long under the thumb of their failed businessman of a father, hear that Captain Rack is hiring, they jump at the chance to crew the Monetta's Mourn for a couple of months. They hope to "go out, just for a while [...] then come back home, and share what we've made." (p.15) Needless to say, dear daddy doesn't agree, but then, he can't stop them, can he?


Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Book Review | The Kind Folk by Ramsey Campbell


Luke Arnold is a successful stage comedian who, with his partner Sophie Drew, is about to have their first child. Their life seems ideal and Luke feels that true happiness is finally within his grasp.

This wasn't always the case. Growing up in a loving but dysfunctional family, Luke was a lonely little boy who never felt that he belonged. While his parents adored him, the whole family knew that due to a mix-up at the hospital, Luke wasn't their biological child. His parents did the best they could to make the lad feel special. But it was his beloved uncle Terence who Luke felt most close to, a man who enchanted (and frightened) the lad with tales of the other—eldritch beings, hedge folks, and other fables of Celtic myth.

When Terence dies in a freak accident, Luke suddenly begins to learn how little he really knew his uncle. How serious was Terence about the magic in his tales? Why did he travel so widely by himself after Luke was born, and what was he looking for? Soon Luke will have to confront forces that may be older than the world in order to save his unborn child.

***

In everything we do, every decision we make and every action we undertake, our identities define us... yet we never really know who we are. We know who we were—we tell ourselves we do, to be sure—but like all memories, these recollections lose their sharpness with time, and, invariably, some of their truth, too. And while we think we know who we will be, these are projections at best; messy guesses subject to sudden and surprising changes in circumstance.

Take Luke Arnold, the central perspective of The Kind Folk by Ramsey Campbell. He thought he was the only son of Maurice and Freda Arnold, but as a DNA test taken on television demonstrates, he's not; the hospital must have given the couple he calls mum and dad the wrong baby. "He still has all his memories; nothing has changed them or what he is, let alone the people who are still his parents in surely every way that counts." (p.19) Nevertheless, this sensational revelation alters Luke's perception of his past, and that, in turn, has huge ramifications on his future.

Who, then, is the man caught in the middle?

Not who—or what—you might imagine, actually...

A father-to-be, in the first, because Luke's wife, the singer/songwriter Sophie Drew, is expecting. And although the doctors at the hospital give clean bills of health to both of the prospective parents, they take Luke to one side to say that it would be "in the interest of your child to discover what you can about your origins." (p.73) Origins that, try as he might to divine them in the subsequent months, don't seem to be entirely natural in nature.

It just so happens he already has an inkling as to where else he could conceivably have come from, because as a boy, he was haunted by bad dreams, imaginary companions and a compulsion to twist the fingers of his hands into shapes seen by some as satanic. The child psychologist little Luke saw all those years ago thought this was the fault of Luke's beloved uncle, Terence, and his tales of the Kind Folk.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Book Review | Spellbreaker by Blake Charlton


Leandra Weal has a bad habit of getting herself into dangerous situations.

While hunting neodemons in her role as Warden of Ixos, Leandra obtains a prophetic spell that provides a glimpse one day into her future. She discovers that she is doomed to murder someone she loves, soon, but not who. That's a pretty big problem for a woman who has a shark god for a lover, a hostile empress for an aunt, a rogue misspelling wizard for a father, and a mother who—especially when arguing with her daughter—can be a real dragon.

Leandra's quest to unravel the mystery of the murder-she-will-commit becomes more urgent when her chronic disease flares up and the Ixonian Archipelago is plagued by natural disasters, demon worshiping cults and fierce political infighting. Everywhere she turns, Leandra finds herself amid intrigue and conflict. It seems her bad habit for getting into dangerous situations is turning into a full blown addiction.

As chaos spreads across Ixos, Leandra and her troubled family must race to uncover the shocking truth about a prophesied demonic invasion, human language, and their own identities... if they don't kill each other first.

***

Although it was a small novel, both in size and in scope, Spellwright made a sizeable splash in the speculative fiction scene when it was released six years or so ago. First-time author Blake Charlton brought his own experiences as "a proud dyslexic" to bear brilliantly by exploring the place of a young man who misspells everything in a world in which magic is literally written.

Spellbound was bigger than Spellwright in the same several senses. It expanded the overarching narrative from the magical academy where Nicodemus Weal came of age and learned of something called the Disjunction to take in a distant city and a second central character. Again like the author, a medical school student by day and a writer by night at the time, Francesca DeVega was a physician poised to use her powers to heal the needy, but when she too became aware of the coming catastrophe, she had to put her pursuits on the back-burner to help Nico defeat the demons—demons that meant to destroy the lifeblood of the living: language.

But the demons were not defeated by our heroes... only delayed. And now, in Spellbreaker—not the longest volume of Charlton's inventive trilogy but unequivocally the most ambitious—the Disjunction is at last at hand.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Book Review | The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin


The season of endings grows darker, as civilisation fades into the long cold night.

Essun—once Damaya, once Syenite, now avenger—has found shelter, but not her daughter. Instead there is Alabaster Tenring, destroyer of the world, with a request. But if Essun does what he asks, it would seal the fate of the Stillness forever.

Far away, her daughter Nassun is growing in power—and her choices will break the world.

***

Middle volume syndrome sets in in the surprisingly circumspect sequel to one of the best and bravest books of 2015. Though the world remains remarkable, and the characters at the heart of the narrative are as rich and resonant as ever, The Obelisk Gate sacrifices The Fifth Season's substance and sense of momentum for a far slighter and slower story.

In the Stillness, a perpetually apocalyptic landscape which may or may not be our planet many generations hence, purpose is a pre-requisite. A use-caste, it's called. There are strongbacks and breeders and cutters and hunters, to name just a few, all of whom are defined by what they do; by what they can contribute to the communities, or comms, that they call home.

This is a hard world, however, replete with hard people. Season after Season—of widespread death by choking, boiling and breathlessness among other, equally unpleasant ends—has seen to that, so no comm will carry you if you're not prepared to pull your weight in some way. In the Stillness, there's just no place for waste.

No place for orogenes like our heroes, either. Able as they are to manipulate thermal and kinetic energy, orogenes, or roggas, have huge power, and with it, responsibility. That they could choose to behave irresponsibly, or behave in that fashion by accident, represents a risk most of the men and women of this world aren't willing to take. To wit, orogenes are either slaughtered as soon as they start exhibiting abilities, or sent to the Fulcrum, to be trained; some might say tamed.

Dear little Damaya, The Fifth Season's first perspective, was one such soul, summarily taken from her parents simply because she was different. At the Fulcrum, she was shaped—through pain and the promise of gain—into Syenite, said text's second perspective, but when, years later, she discovered the depths of the depravity underpinning this facility, she escaped, and again changed her name. As Essun, the third of The Fifth Season's three POVs, she met a man and had a family, all while hiding what she was, as well as what her children were... just as N. K. Jemisin hid the fact that her novel's seemingly separate narrators were one and the same.

That discovery packed a proper punch, but it's a known quantity now—as indeed is Essun's deception.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Book Review | I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas


For fans of legendary pulp author H. P. Lovecraft, there is nothing bigger than the annual Providence-based convention the Summer Tentacular. Horror writer Colleen Danzig doesn’t know what to expect when she arrives, but is unsettled to find that among the hobnobbing between scholars and literary critics are a group of real freaks: book collectors looking for volumes bound in human skin, and true believers claiming the power to summon the Elder God Cthulhu, one of their idol’s most horrific fictional creations, before the weekend is out.

Colleen’s trip spirals into a nightmare when her roommate for the weekend, an obnoxious novelist known as Panossian, turns up dead, his face neatly removed. What’s more unsettling is that, in the aftermath of the murder, there is little concern among the convention goers. The Summer Tentacular continues uninterrupted, except by a few bumbling police.

Everyone at the convention is a possible suspect, but only Colleen seems to show any interest in solving the murder. So she delves deep into the darkness, where occult truths have been lurking since the beginning of time. A darkness where Panossian is waiting, spending a lot of time thinking about Colleen, narrating a new Lovecraftian tale that could very well spell her doom.

***

Ahead of Ian McEwan's literary nasty Nutshell, a fable of infidelity readers will only be able to experience from the perspective of a foetus, I Am Providence proffers a murder mystery narrated in no small part by the victim of that very vicious killing in the moments before his failing brain cracks and crumbles like "a sponge drying in the sun." (p.162)

Panos Panossian is an utterly insufferable author of Lovecraftian lore, so it's either fitting or simply suspicious that he meets his maker on the first day of the annual Summer Tentacular. "Providence's premiere literary conference about pulp-writer, racist, and weirdo Howard Phillips Lovecraft" (p.1) features, funnily enough, "a veritable 'Who's That?' of horror fiction," (p.30) including one Colleen Danzig. A newcomer to mythos mania with just a few short stories to her name, she was set to share a room with Panossian, but when the con goes on despite his death, Colleen decides to determine just whodunnit. After all, "if anything is possible, then yes, an untrained writer could find a murderer." (p.173)

Not just a murderer, but a mutilator too, because to add insult to injury, the killer, whoever he or she may be, purloined poor Panossian's face in addition to his future...

Singularly sickening as the murder this mystery revolves around is, if the truth be told, there's no shortage of suspects in Nick Mamatas' scathing portrayal of Lovecraftian fandom:
The Tentacular was a strangely aggressive environment—writers jockeying for position, people bellowing at one another, men sneering at women out of some abject simultaneous attraction and repulsion. It was high school all over again, except that all the kids with a measure of social intelligence were at the homecoming dance and the kids left behind were the meatheads, glue-sniffers, nerds, and minor league bullies. Geeks who liked to show off their knowledge of esoteric subjects, the more repulsive, the better. (p.74)
That last—"the more repulsive, the better"—may well have been Mamatas' mantra whilst working on I Am Providence, because it is, if not a horrid novel, then a novel of horridness. Almost all of its characters are creeps, not least Colleen, who is so cavalier and careless in her pursuit of the truth that she points the finger at pretty much everyone she meets, such that it's no wonder she hasn't made a great many friends by the end.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Book Review | The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp


Jack Sparks died while writing this book.

It was no secret that journalist Jack Sparks had been researching the occult for his new book. No stranger to controversy, he'd already triggered a furious Twitter storm by mocking an exorcism he witnessed. Then there was that video: forty seconds of chilling footage that Jack repeatedly claimed was not of his making, yet was posted from his own YouTube account. 

Nobody knew what happened to Jack in the days that followed—until now.

***

If Hunter S. Thompson had written a Blair Witch tie-in, it might have looked a little something like this. A gonzo ghost story that trades in unreliable narration and drug-fuelled devastation, The Last Days of Jack Sparks marks the original fiction debut of music journalist and now novelist Jason Arnopp, and has as its central character a man who made his name writing for the NME before properly letting loose in a few bestselling books.

That's where the similarities between the author and the authored end, however. I have reason to believe that Jason Arnopp is a genuinely decent human being, whereas Jack Sparks is an egotistical twit who, for his first trick, travelled the length and breadth of Great Britain on a pogo stick, offending everyone he encountered equally. Since then, he's gobbled up gang culture and gotten close to a couple of Class A chemical concoctions, with similarly repugnant results.

Now, for his new novel, he's set his sights on a Halloween theme. Could ghosts really be real? Our intrepid reporter wants to know. So much so that Jack Sparks on the Supernatural will be his last book, because he died, quite violently, while writing it.

We learn this thanks to Jack Sparks' estranged brother Alastair, who footnotes and provides a foreword for the first draft of the found fiction that follows:
The decision to publish Jack Sparks on the Supernatural in its entirely uncensored form was in no way taken lightly, and I know how very difficult it is for the bereaved to read accounts of such horrendous events. Yet I also hope this book may yield some form of closure and put an end to unhelpful internet speculation—not least concerning the nature of my brother's death. (p.8)
Be warned, though, that Alastair's intentions might not be so wholly noble. "Believe me," he begs—but why should we? There's something defensive, dare I say desperate, about his abrupt introduction. And not long later, we learn that he and his brother weren't even on speaking terms towards the end of Jack's tenure. Might Alastair have an axe of his own to grind?

Jack indubitably does. He's a man on a mission at the outset of his ultimate effort: not to find evidence of things that go bump in the night, but to disprove every indication that they may. To wit, he sits in on an exorcism in Italy; laughs out loud as he live-tweets it, even. What he sees that day is hard to explain away, but Jack is determined to do so, or die trying.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Book Review | The Race by Nina Allan


In a future scarred by fracking and ecological collapse, Jenna Hoolman's world is dominated by illegal smartdog racing: greyhounds genetically modified with human DNA. When her young niece goes missing that world implodes.

Christy’s life is dominated by fear of her brother, a man she knows capable of monstrous acts and suspects of hiding even darker ones. Desperate to learn the truth she contacts Alex, who has his own demons to fight. Last but not least there's Maree, a young woman undertaking a journey that will change her world forever.

The Race weaves multiple together story threads and realities to take us on a gripping and spellbinding journey.

***

If I were to start this article by stating that The Race is the best debut of the year to date, I'd be telling the truth, to be sure, but I'd be lying to you, too—and that's as apt a tack as any I could take to introduce a review of a book as deceptive and self-reflexive as said.

You see, it might be that I was more moved by Nina Allan's first novel than by any other released in recent months—emotionally and, yes, intellectually—but The Race was not released in recent months, not really: NewCon Press published an earlier edition in 2014, which, even absent the substantial and supremely satisfying expansion Allan has added for Titan Books' new and indubitably improved take two, went on to be nominated for the BSFA's Best Novel Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Prize and the Kitschies' Red Tentacle. And although The Race is indeed Allan's first novel proper, it is, in a sense, a cycle of stories that share subjects and settings, not unlike several of the aforementioned author's earlier efforts, such as Stardust and The Silver Wind.

So it's not really a debut and it wasn't really released this year, which leaves just one of my first line's facts unfudged. Happily, The Race actually is amazing, and if you haven't read it already, don't let this second chance pass you by.

The Race is a book about longing, and belonging. It's a book about identity—how it's formed for us, and how we go on to fit it to ourselves or else ourselves to it. It's a book that teaches us the value of family; the damage those nearest and dearest to us can do, and the good things, too. It's a book that instructs us to take the measure of our previous experiences before moving fully into the future.

It's a book, for the first hundred pages and change, about Jenna Hoolman, who lives in a former gas town with what's left of her family; with her brother Del and his oddball daughter Lumey. Sapphire's glory days are long gone, alas. "It's what you might call an open secret that the entire economy of Sapphire as it is now is funded upon smartdog racing. Officially the sport is still illegal, but that's never stopped it from being huge." (p.11)

Smartdog racing is the practice of gambling on greyhounds that have been genetically engineered to have an lifelong link with their runners, which is what the men and women who train and care for these incredibly clever creatures are called. Some people believe they're mind readers, but not Jen's boyfriend Em:
"I think true telepathy—the kind you see in films—is probably a myth. But something approaching it, definitely. A kind of empathic sixth sense. The work that's been done with the smartdogs is just the start. All runners are natural empaths to an extent, we've known that for a long time. The implant is just a facilitator for their inborn talent. Children like Lumey though—children who don't need an implant at all to communicate—they're the next stage. A new race, almost. And yes [...] that would make her very valuable indeed." (pp.129-130)
Valuable enough to kidnap and hold to ransom, to truly devastating effect, not least because the only way Del knows how to raise the money to buy Lumey back from her captors is to wager a sizable sum on his smartdog, Limlasker, winning the Delawarr Triple. "What it came down to was this: Del was proposing to bet his daughter's life on a sodding dog race." (p.67) The race Allan's title refers to, right?

Well, you know... yes and no.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Book Review | This Savage Song by V. E. Schwab


Kate Harker and August Flynn are the heirs to a divided city, a grisly metropolis where the violence has begun to create real and deadly monsters. All Kate wants is to be as ruthless as her father, who lets the monsters roam free and makes the inhabitants pay for his protection. August just wants to be human, as good-hearted as his own father but his curse is to be what the humans fear. The thin truce that keeps the Harker and Flynn families at peace is crumbling, and an assassination attempt forces Kate and August into a tenuous alliance. But how long will they survive in a city where no one is safe and monsters are real...

***

A girl who wants to be a monster and a monster who wants to be a boy learn that you can't always get what they you in This Savage Song, a refreshingly unromantic urban fantasy bolstered by a brilliantly built background and a pair of expertly crafted characters more interested in making the best of their bad lots than in bumping uglies.

Though we're given a gaggle of glimpses of the wasted world that surrounds it on all sides, the first volume of V. E. Schwab's Monsters of Verity series takes place primarily in V-City, twelve years on from something called the Phenomenon: an apocalypse of sorts which means, for whatever reason, that monsters are born whenever humans do wrong.
The Corsai seemed to come from violent, but nonlethal acts, and the Malchai stemmed from murders, but the Sunai, it was believed, came from the darkest crimes of all: bombings, shootings, massacres, events that claimed not only one life, but many. All that pain and death coalescing into something truly terrible; if a monster's catalyst informed its nature, then the Sunai were the worst things to go bump in the night. (p.190)
That's what a lot of the people who live in V-City think, particularly those who've chosen to pay for the privilege, but August Flynn is one such Sunai, and he isn't evil in the least. Sure, he swallows souls whole, but only the souls of sinners, and only then when he absolutely has to.

The saviour who took August in in the wake of whatever catastrophe created him has managed to make lemonade out of those very lemons, however, by using said Sunai's nightmarish nature to do good. As the founder of the FTF, an organisation which keeps the South side of this split city safe, Henry Flynn has enlisted August and his kin to seek out and eat bad people. He's also "the only man willing to stand up to a glorified criminal and fight." (p.38)

That glorified criminal is Callum Harker, the enterprising mind behind the protection racket that keeps the Corsai and the Malchai at bay beyond the bounds of Henry's territory, and our other protagonist's father.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Book Review | Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell by Paul Kane


Late 1895. Sherlock Holmes and his faithful companion Dr John Watson are called upon to investigate a missing persons case. On the face of it, this seems like a mystery that Holmes might relish, as the person in question vanished from a locked room. But this is just the start of an investigation that will draw the pair into contact with a shadowy organisation talked about in whispers, known only as the Order of the Gash.

As more people go missing in a similar fashion, the clues point to a sinister asylum in France and to the underworld of London. However, it is an altogether different underworld that Holmes will soon discover—as he comes face to face not only with those followers who do the Order’s bidding on Earth, but those who serve it in Hell: the Cenobites.

***

The great detective applies his inimitable intellect to a murder mystery like none other in Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell, a surprisingly credible commingling of Arthur Conan Doyle's classic characters and the soul-shredding subjects of The Scarlet Gospels. That's right, readers: Clive Barker's Cenobites are back—and they may actually have met their match.

Holmes himself has seen better days, I dare say. In the wake of the great hiatus, during which period he disappeared to mess with his nemesis, he's alive and relatively well, but without the dastardly Moriarty to match wits with, he's grown a bit bored. And as Dr Watson warns:
When Holmes grew bored, it was usually only a matter of time before he took up his old habit of drug use [...] however his penchant for his seven-percent solution of cocaine, administered via a needle he kept locked away in a polished Morocco box, was the least of my concerns after he returned, it transpired.
The black dog of Holmes' habit is troubling, to be sure, but still more worrisome to Watson is the fact that his closest acquaintance's "malaise was gaining momentum." Said detective is dismissing fascinating cases with no explanation and plying his elementary trade in plague-ridden areas. "If these were in fact efforts to feel something, to feel alive," Watson worries, "then they might well kill the man instead."

It's a relief, then, that "this dangerous road he was heading down: this terrible testing of himself" seems to cease when a couple come knocking on the door of 221B Baker Street. Laurence Cotton's brother Francis has gone missing, is the thing, and the police aren't taking his disappearance seriously—despite the screams the housekeeper heard emerge from the loft he was last seen locking.

At the scene of the could-be crime, our chums uncover a void in the decades-old dust that suggests the involvement of a small box, and soon scent "an odd smell of vanilla" masking an undercurrent of what must be blood. From just this, Holmes is convinced that Francis has fallen victim to some dark deed indeed, but the mechanics of his murder are mysterious—as is the motive of the killer or killers—and that comes to fascinate a fellow famed for his ability to explain anything.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Book Review | The Hatching by Ezekiel Boone


Deep in the jungle of Peru, a black, skittering mass devours an American tourist party whole. FBI agent Mike Rich investigates a fatal plane crash in Minneapolis and makes a gruesome discovery. Unusual seismic patterns register in a Indian earthquake lab, confounding the scientists there. The Chinese government "accidentally" drops a nuclear bomb in an isolated region of its own country. The first female president of the United States is summoned to an emergency briefing. And all of these events are connected.

As panic begins to sweep the globe, a mysterious package from South America arrives at Melanie Guyer's Washington laboratory. The unusual egg inside begins to crack. A virulent ancient species, long dormant, is now very much awake. But this is only the beginning of our end...

***

In recent years, apocalyptic fiction has gotten pretty political. Where once it was the preserve of the firmly fantastical or the nominally natural, like the rampaging rats of James Herbert's unforgettable first novel, or Michael Crichton's reconditioned dinosaurs, such stories have since taken a turn for the topical. Now we have nuclear winters to worry about, a cache of climate catastrophes, and the release of diseases genetically engineered to "solve" the planet's overpopulation problems. For those of us who read to escape the devastation of the day-to-day, it's all gotten uncomfortably current.

Happily, The Hatching hearkens back to the detached disasters of yesteryear. The end of the world as we know it isn't even our own fault in Ezekiel Boone's book—it comes about because of some damned spiders:
There are thirty-five thousand species of spiders and they've been on earth for at least three hundred million years. From the very origin of humanity, spiders have been out there, scuttling along the edges of firelight, spinning webs in the woods, and scaring the hell out of us, even though, with a few rare exceptions, they are no real threat. But these were something different.
These spiders are more like ants, in fact, in that they're essentially social: what they do, they do for the good of the group as opposed to their own individual ends, which means they can set their collective sights on bigger and better prey than bluebottles. Creepy as one arachnid is, in other words, it's got nothing on a sea of the beasties with an appetite for people.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves—a lesson Boone would do well to learn, because before the inevitable rise of the spiders, he gets bogged down in setting up a situation for them to chew through, and sadly, it isn't up to snuff, largely because it relies on a cast of conspicuously cartoonish characters.

Of these, there are those whose only role in the whole is to be summarily dispatched so as to show that the aforementioned arachnids are the real deal. That's clear—and effective, yes—the first time a spider eats its way out of one of their forgettable faces; by the fifth time someone is dispatched in that fashion, it's gotten a bit boring, and alas, The Hatching has hardly started.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Book Review | End of Watch by Stephen King


Retired Detective Bill Hodges now runs a two-person firm called Finders Keepers with his partner Holly Gibney. They met in the wake of the Mercedes Massacre, when a queue of people was run down by the diabolical killer Brady Hartsfield.

Brady is now confined to Room 217 of the Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic, in an unresponsive state. But all is not what it seems: the evidence suggests that Brady is somehow awake, and in possession of deadly new powers that allow him to wreak unimaginable havoc without ever leaving his hospital room.

When Bill and Holly are called to a suicide scene with ties to the Mercedes Massacre, they find themselves pulled into their most dangerous case yet, one that will put their lives at risk, as well as those of Bill's heroic young friend Jerome Robinson and his teenage sister, Barbara. Brady Hartsfield is back, and planning revenge not just on Hodges and his friends, but on an entire city.

The clock is ticking in unexpected ways...

***

The Bill Hodges trilogy that began with the Edgar Award-winning Mr Mercedes and continued in last year's fearsome Finders Keepers comes to an uncharacteristically concise close in End of Watch, a finale which finds Stephen King's determined old det-ret racing against the clock to get to the bottom of a string of suicides he thinks could be linked to the malignant mind behind the Mercedes Massacre:
On a foggy morning in 2009, a maniac named Brady Hartsfield drove a stolen Mercedes Benz into a crowd of job-seekers at City Center, downtown. He killed eight and seriously injured fifteen. [...] Martine Stover had been the toughest [survivor] to talk to, and not only because her disfigured mouth made her all but impossible to understand for anyone except her mother. Stover was paralysed from the chest down. (p.16)
The adjustment has been damned difficult, but in the seven years since the incident, Martine has come to terms with her limited mobility. She and her mother, who stepped up to the plate in the wake of that darkest of dates, have grown closer than ever before. They've been, by all accounts, happy—hard as that might for some outsiders to imagine—and happy people don't force overdoses on their dearly beloved daughters then takes cannisters of gas into the bath, do they?

Because of Hodges' history with Hartsfield, he and his recalcitrant partner Holly Gibney are, as a courtesy, invited to see the scene of what the police are keen to call a murder-suicide, and although the evidence in support of that theory is clear, when our PIs find a Zappit—a budget-brand tablet Hodges has seen the object of his obsession play with in the past—they can't help but suspect a connection.

But how could Mr Mercedes be involved in the deaths of Martine Stover and Janice Ellerton when he's basically brain-dead himself?

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Book Review | The Fireman by Joe Hill


No one knows exactly when it began or where it originated. A terrifying new plague is spreading like wildfire across the country, striking cities one by one: Boston, Detroit, Seattle. The doctors call it Draco Incendia Trychophyton. To everyone else it’s Dragonscale, a highly contagious, deadly spore that marks its hosts with beautiful black and gold marks across their bodies—before causing them to burst into flames. Millions are infected; blazes erupt everywhere. There is no antidote. No one is safe.

Harper Grayson, a compassionate, dedicated nurse as pragmatic as Mary Poppins, treated hundreds of infected patients before her hospital burned to the ground. Now she’s discovered the telltale gold-flecked marks on her skin. When the outbreak first began, she and her husband, Jakob, had made a pact: they would take matters into their own hands if they became infected. To Jakob’s dismay, Harper wants to live—at least until the unborn child she is carrying comes to term.


***

Unlike some, I have a soft spot for Heart-Shaped Box, and a lot of love for Horns, but even I'd agree that NOS4A2 is Joe Hill's strongest novel—not least, I believe, because it's also his longest. The larger than life-sized story it told and the complex characters explored over its engrossing course simply couldn't have come to be without the room to breathe its length allowed, so when I found out The Fireman was similarly thick, I was pleased.

And it's an awesome novel, naturally: an apocalyptic parable written from the perspective of an infectiously happy heroine every millimetre as meaty and memorable as Ms. Vic McQueen, and whose hellish ex gives Charles Talent Manx a run for his money. But for all that The Fireman kicks off brilliantly and ends tremendously well, the middle section of the text—an epic in and of itself—tends towards the plodding and the predictable.

It begins with the world burning.

It's been burning for months, as a matter of fact, but only "in filthy places no one wants to go," you know. So sayeth Harper Grayson's asshole of a husband. And it's true that the first recorded cases of Draco Incendia Trychophyto—a spore that marks its hosts with gorgeous golden growths before causing them to suddenly combust—it's true, at least according to the news, that the so-called 'Scale originated elsewhere.

Some say the Russians engineered it. Others insist on the involvement of ISIS, or, failing that, fundamentalists fixated on the book of Revelations. Truth be told, its source isn't so important, because the thing about fire is, it spreads—and with it, this incipient sickness. Before long, "fifteen million people are infected. Maine is like Mordor now," Harper has it: "a belt of ash and poison a hundred miles wide. Southern California is even worse. Last I heard, SoCal was on fire from Escondido to Santa Maria."

With "her silliness and her sense of play and her belief that the kindnesses you showed other added up to something," said school nurse is just about the sweetest human being there's ever been, so whilst her increasingly hysterical other half hides, Harper helps, however she can. Alas, lending a hand at the local hospital leads to her developing symptoms of the 'Scale herself—just hours after she learns she's pregnant.