Wednesday 31 March 2010

Video Game Review: God of War III

Is there a PlayStation franchise more pivotal to Sony's success in the ongoing console wars than God of War? Is there a single character more memorable than Kratos in their extensive back-catalogue? To both questions, I'd answer no. God of War III, then, is a decisive moment in the history of the much-troubled PlayStation 3. Half a decade in the making and at a reported cost of $44 million, to say there's a lot riding on the third and apparently final game in the God of War trilogy is to understate the case rather dramatically. But despite ludicrously high expectations and some serious kerfuffle behind the scenes of Sony Santa Monica in the form of the surprising departure of former director Cory Barlog, in the end, with God of War III, the studio do both the series and indeed themselves justice.

And if there's a better looking game this year, I'll eat my hat.

Of course, looks aren't everything - given the runaway success of the Wii, in fact, looks don't seem to be worth very much at all - so it's a relief that I'm able to say there's much more to God of War III than meets the eye. But let me restate that: what meets the eye, the eye won't soon forget. God of War III is gorgeous. From the environments and the character to their natural animation and cinematic framing, everything about this game is oozes production value. All the dollars are right there on the screen to see, and for that reason alone - we'll get to the others shortly - God of War III is worth the investment. 

Picking up in the immediate aftermath of where the last game left off, God of War III begins with Kratos standing on the shoulders of giants. Titans, in fact - and an army of them - lumbering up the sheer face of Mount Olympus towards Zeus, lord of all Gods. Kratos has long since sworn vengeance on Zeus, but just as he approaches the culmination of an epic quest of hardships and horrors that has taken him through Hell and back, the Olympians cruelly bumrush the God of War, knocking him into the River Styx, where he is stripped of all his power, and the very possibility, it seems, of enacting the bloodthirsty vengeance that has long compelled him.

Needless to say, Kratos doesn't give up so easily. This brief "abilitease" aside, God of War III chronicles his last-ditch attempt to regain his power and scale Mount Olympus once again - without the assistance of a legion of stone giants. On the default difficulty setting, this shouldn't take him any longer than 10 hours, and they're 10 hours packed so full of action, awesome spectacle and gut-wrenching violence that they're each of them fit to burst.

Of course, you'd be half-mad to come to God of War III for the story. I'll say this much: what there is of it is relatively well done - tying off many of the narrative threads of previous games in the trilogy satisfactorily and even introducing a few interesting new Gods and monsters to the by-now traditional mix - but this game, as with its predecessors, is all about the action. And there's action in spades; which is to say, a successful hybrid of weighty, flexible and utterly rewarding combo-based character action and frequent quick-time events. Short of perhaps Devil May Cry, no game does the former better than God of War, and the third proper entry in the franchise does not disappoint in that regard - though neither does it innovate that aspect of the experience at all.

As to the latter - the so-called QTEs - God of War III surely falls short as compared to the more naturalistic integration of such gameplay as seen in Heavy Rain, but contrived though they may occasionally seem, there are nonetheless a host of impactful quick-time moments you'll be hard pressed to forget. From pummeling a man's head to a bloody pulp to gouging out a God's eyeballs with a press of the thumbsticks, these sequences serve to involve you even in those moments where a cut-scene would otherwise exclude, and I'd personally rather that than the non-interactive alternative. These are games, for goodness sake; at the end of the day, all arguments about the medium's potential as an art form aside, they're for playing.

And God of War III plays like a dream. What with the excruciating, in-your-face violence and the obligatory quick-time sex scene, it's all perhaps a little too boy's-own character action for the tastes of some, and certainly there's an element of been-there, done-that about the proceedings - this is Kratos's third time out, after all - but what the franchise might have lost in vitality, in innovativeness, it makes up for here in terms of fidelity and closure. Gaming has never looked this good. Not only that: God of War III sounds great, the controls are tight and responsive and the action mechanics at its heart are meaty and empowering. Those fans who've hungered for Kratos in HD will find their expectations well and truly met, and though I doubt for a second that we'll see another God of War game at some point in the future, this is a neat conclusion to this chapter in the glorious, if not particularly gutsy adventures of Sony's single most important icon.

Tuesday 30 March 2010

Book Review: Dark Life by Kat Falls

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"Ty has lived under the ocean for his entire life. Following global warming and the rise of the seas, his family joined an underwater community in hopes of living in the new frontier of the ocean floor. But When Ty meets Gemma, a girl from "topside", who is searching the seas for her brother, she quickly makes his life very complicated.

"Together, Ty and Gemma face dangerous sea creatures and venture into the frontier town's rough underworld as they search for her missing brother. But the deeper they dig, the more attention they attract, and soon Ty and Gemma find themselves being hunted by a gang of outlaws who roam the underwater territories causing havoc, and who seem to have eerie abilities.

"But Ty has a secret of his own, living underwater for his entire life has meant he has also developed a "special" power. Can he keep it a secret from Gemma and his family or is it time for him to finally tell everyone the truth?"


When the worst pronouncements came at last to pass, the world as we know it changed. When the tides rose, submerging twenty percent of a continent already fit to burst, most people could only pack themselves together more tightly; so tightly that for them, comfort soon consisted of being crushed together like sardines in Babylonian high rises, scraping away at meager existences there and then gone.

Ill contented with their lots in life, a brave few began to look for an alternative: a second chance at life, but not as we know it. Dark Life has it that deep underwater, they found just that: a new way of living. These pioneers farm fish on the seabeds for food and make their homes on the floors of the vast ocean expanse. For their courage, for their sustainable ways, they are viewed with suspicion, if not outright derision - and none more so than those born and bred beneath the sea, about whom there are rumours of Dark Gifts; strange abilities that stir only in those who have lived so long in the eternal darkness of the cavernous ocean floor. Among them... Ty.

Ty is a great character, loveably spunky and young, often very funny, and cheeky without coming across as oafish or insulting. He comes alive particularly around his excitable little sister, Zoe, who lives in Benthic Territory with Ty and his parents in a floating undersea homestead wrapped in "transparent plastic" and given shape by "honeycombed walls, filled with foamed metal".

But it's Gemma, a Topsider in search of her missing pioneer brother, with whom Ty shares the larger part of the narrative, and I'm pleased to say the rapport the pair establish over the course of Dark Life is excellent. Not to get into spoiler territory, but a clear attraction between them develops throughout Kat Falls' first novel, and the author brilliantly accentuates their chemistry without so foregrounding it that the breakneck pace of the tale ever threatens to stall because of some juvenile schmoozing.

Similarly revelatory is that Falls does not neuter her protagonists in the way of so many characters from the pages of other young adult fiction. There's nothing vulgar or explicit about their relationship; it amounts to a sweet swell of feeling that often feels forced in other all-ages efforts. In Dark Life, it seems perfectly natural, and that is in itself worthy of applause. Let me be quite clear, though, in stressing that parent certainly need not fear for their younglings' innocence.

There is, of course, an environmental undertow to much of Dark Life, but it's never overbearing, and within its pages there are other, equally difficult subjects for young readers to deal with: there's bigotry, deception, bullying and some questionable treatment of children. Too much YA fiction has the tendency to condescend to its readers, or else clean the slate of all the negative aspects of a tale that aren’t either cartoonish or moralistic. Falls, on the other hand, manages with her incredible first novel to avoid both such narrative sinkholes, weaving an exciting tale that isn't afraid to take on the sometimes hard facts of life.

Clearly, Kat Falls is a name to remember. Her voice resounds with clarity, purpose and wit. Upon entering an undersea prison, Ty remarks that perhaps "the architecture was part of the prisoners' punishment. Who wanted to live in squared off rooms with hard walls? It was unnatural." Falls' prose comes easily, and the tale which spins effortlessly from her words shoots along with all the pace of a jet-stream - not to mention the excitement of riding one.

Dark Life is full, too, of novel concepts and inventive substitutions. Where we might have guns, Dark Life has handheld harpoons called harpistols; Liquigen lets the population of Benthic Territory breathe underwater; minisubs and mantaboards are their means of transport rather than cars and bicycles. The premise of Falls' novel might seem far-fetched, but all such concerns whirlpool away as her imagination startles with one brilliant explanation of life on the seabed after another. It's really a great deal of fun just to idly wonder what she might come up with next.

There need not be sequels to Dark Life – to this reader’s utter surprise, the novel doesn’t demand them, tying off loose ends and resolving conflicts in a veritable downpour of resolution in its final pages. And yet, if they come – if Ty and Gemma are to breach the sheer drop-off near Coldsleep Canyon, as the epilogue teases – then this reader will be overjoyed to brace the deep water with them. Dark Life is a lesson in how to write fiction for one audience without excluding another. Moreover, it's fantastic fun.


Dark Life
by Kat Falls
April 2010, Simon & Schuster

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Recommended and Related Reading

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet

I'm not at all sure how much crossover there is between readers and gamers. Since I launched The Speculative Scotsman in January I've met a few fellow bloggers here and there who indulge in both media in their free time - the lovely Aidan from A Dribble of Ink, for one, and Mark Chitty, the Walker of Worlds himself, for another - but the various video-game related posts I've put up here on the blog haven't attracted much attention at all.

So consider this a call to arms: if you're a gamer, active on either PSN or Xbox Live, give me a shout at thespeculativescotsman [at] googlemail [dot] com or in the comments with your gamertag. Perhaps at some point, we'll get together and talk about our favourite books while we shoot some dudes. Wouldn't that be nice?

Speaking of nice, a trailer for Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet popped up on Kotaku last night - and it's incredible. Here, have a gander:

Lovecraft, anyone? Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, coming to Xbox Live Arcade at some indeterminate point in the future, looks like Cthulhu does the charming art-style of Patapon and LocoRoco. From the trailer, Fuelcell's game looks pretty far along, so with a little luck we'll all be able to drop some spacebucks on it sooner rather than later.

In fact, I'm going to call it. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, Geometry Wars 3 and Hydrophobia - another very promising indie game coming to a console near you - will all be part of Microsoft's third annual Summer of Arcade. Anyone care to offer me odds against?

Monday 29 March 2010

Coming Attractions: The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

We've been hearing about The Heroes for a while, now - for one thing, Joe name-dropped this tremendously exciting forthcoming fantasy in a few interviews for Best Served Cold - but today, thanks to Lauren Panepinto over on the Orbit Books blog, we know that much more.

For starters, here's the blurb:

"War: where the blood and dirt of the battlefield hide the dark deeds committed in the name of glory. The Heroes is about violence and ambition, gruesome deaths and betrayals; and the brutal truth that no plan survives contact with enemy. The characters are the stars, as ever, and the message is dark: when it comes to war, there are no heroes...

Meet the Heroes.

Curnden Craw: a ruthless fighter who wants nothing more than to see his crew survive.

Prince Calder: a liar and a coward, he will regain his crown by any means necessary.

Bremer dan Gorst: a master swordsman, a failed bodyguard, his honor will be restored - in the blood of his enemies.

Over three days, their fates will be sealed."

I never did finish the First Law trilogy, though I still mean to, and while I'll admit to having had a few issues with Best Served Cold - you can read more those in The Speculative Scotsman's review here - to say I'm looking forward to Joe's next novel doesn't quite do my anticipation justice. Three primary characters and three days; from that brief tidbit alone it seems likely that The Heroes will have the focus and precision that I found lacking in Best Served Cold.

Of course, the blood, the guts, the grim and glorious - I don't doubt all that'll be present and correct in The Heroes, too. This is a new Joe Abercrombie novel we're talking about here!

Lauren, the darling, was also good enough to reveal the current state of its cover art:

Gorgeous... well, that wouldn't be the word to describe the Steve Stone art reflected in the spatters of blood which will adorn the US edition of The Heroes come March next year, but at the least I appreciate that in a general sense it matches the rather controversial Stateside cover of Best Served Cold. It's worth noting that the map in the background is only placeholder until the artist finishes his geographical rendition of the latest fantasy kingdom to emerge from Joe's imagination.

I'll be very interested to see what we can look forward to here in the UK in terms of cover art. Expect an installment of Cover Identity on that very subject forthwith!

It's still a year away - so long to wait! - but between the blurb and the cover art, you can count The Speculative Scotsman good and psyched for The Heroes' eventual release.

In the interim, perhaps I'll finally finish The First Law. Is it worth my time, readers? Bear in mind I've only read the first book in the trilogy, and though I found Best Served Cold a bit of a slog at times, by the time I turned the last page I'd enjoyed the hell out of it.

Sunday 28 March 2010

The BoSS for 28/03/10

What an eclectic collection of proofs and review copies I've recieved this week. From another young adult effort from the author of Leviathan to two sci-fi novels from 2008, not to mention an art book and an apparently dazzling collection of notional afterlives, this edition of The BoSS is packed full of the weird and the wonderful.

Click through to read Meet the BoSS for an introduction and an explanation as to why you should care about the Bag o' Speculative Swag.

Read on for a glimpse at some of the speculative fiction you can expect to see coverage of here on The Speculative Scotsman in the coming weeks and months.


by Eric Brown

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
06/10/08 by Solaris

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "Bengal Station: an exotic spaceport that dominates the ocean between India and Burma. Jaded telepath, Jeff Vaughan, is employed by the spaceport authorities to monitor incoming craft from the stars. There, he discovers a sinister cult that worships a mysterious alien god. The Church of the Adoration of the Chosen One uses drugs to commune with the Ultimate, and will murder to silence those who oppose their beliefs. The story follows Vaughan as his mistrust of his fellow humans is overturned by his love for the Thai street-girl Sukura, while he attempts to solve the murders and save himself from the psychopath out to kill him."

Commentary: The first of the Begal Station trilogy, Necropath came out in 2008, though I understand Eric Brown introduced the titular spacestation in a previous novel of his. From what I can see, the reception to Brown's return to hard sci-fi was mixed upon its release, but a handy Amazon review tells me Mark Chitty of Walker of Worlds fame loved it, and his is an opinion I respect very much. I'll certainly give this one a shot; despite the all-encompassing purview of The Speculative Scotsman, to tell the truth, there hasn't been nearly enough sci-fi covered on the blog to date. That's something I mean to rectify very soon.

The Temporal Void
by Peter F. Hamilton

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
03/10/08 by Macmillan

Review Priority:
2 (Fair)

Plot Synopsis: "The Intersolar Commonwealth is in turmoil as the Living Dream’s deadline for launching its Pilgrimage into the Void draws closer. Not only is the Ocisen Empire fleet fast approaching on a mission of genocide, but also an internecine war has broken out between the post-human factions over the destiny of humanity.

"Countering the various and increasingly desperate agents and factions is Paula Myo, a ruthlessly single-minded investigator, beset by foes from her distant past and colleagues of dubious allegiance...but she is fast losing a race against time.

At the heart of all this is Edeard the Waterwalker, who once lived a long time ago deep inside the Void. He is the messiah of Living Dream, and visions of his life are shared by, and inspire billions of humans. It is his glorious, captivating story that is the driving force behind Living Dream’s Pilgrimage, a force that is too strong to be thwarted. As Edeard nears his final victory the true nature of the Void is finally revealed."

Commentary: What a lovely surprise it was to recieve, unbidden, a copy of The Temporal Void in the post last week. And a signed hardcover, no less! Of course, I've had to order a copy of The Dreaming Void so that I can start reading Hamilton's latest epic sci-fi saga from the start, but I'm certainly not complaining. Don't let the review priority convince you I'm not looking forward to this: it's only so low because I'll have to plough through volume one of the trilogy before I can devote my full attention to The Temporal Void. Hamilton is an author I've heard a great deal about, and I'm very excited to dig into such superlative space opera. We're talking about nearly 1500 pages of dense speculative fiction here, though, so bear with me; I might need a wee while.

Altered Visions: The Art of Vincent Chong
by Vincent Chong

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
25/03/10 by Telos Publishing

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "Vincent Chong burst onto the horror and fantasy scene several years ago with a sequence of incredible artworks. Since then he has gone on to provide cover artwork for authors such as Stephen King, and has worked with publishers all around the world, as well as providing illustration for record covers and websites. Now some of his incredible artwork is collected in Altered Visions."

Commentary: I've been a very lucky blogger, I think, to have recieved a review copy of Altered Visions from the lovely folks at Telos Publishing. Vincent Chong's artwork is truly breathtaking and this collection, from what I've seen of it, would only do him more justice if it were bigger, as in physically; it's an A5 book where I'd perhaps have expected something more substantial to take pride of place on the coffee table or somesuch. That said, it remains a gorgeous package, and it's packed full of illimunating commentary from Chong himself. Can't hardly wait.

Under the Skin
by Michel Faber

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
01/04/10 by Canongate

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "A lone female scouts the Scottish Highlands in search of well-proportioned men and the reader is given to expect the unfolding of some latter-day psychosexual drama. But commonplace expectation is no guide for this strange and deeply unsettling book; small details at first, then more major clues, suggest that something deeply bizarre is afoot. What are the reason's for Isserley's extensive surgical scarring, her thick glasses (which are just glass), her excruciating backache? Who are the solitary few who work on the farm where her cottage is located? And why are they all nervous about the arrival of someone called Amlis Vess?"

Commentary: What with Under the Dome, Under Heaven and now Under the Skin, I'm given to wonder, whatever next? Under My Trousers? All kidding aside, I'm chuffed to bits to have gotten my bloggery paws on this lovely new edition of a classic modern horror-come-thriller. It's Michel Faber's first novel, and it's set in Scotland, no less - who would have thunk it? My other half read Under the Skin a few years ago and still raves about it, so I'm excited to have this opporunity catch up with her at last.

Humpty's Bones
by Simon Clark

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
25/03/10 by Telos Publishing

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: ""Something nasty has been found in a village garden by an amateur archaeologist... something which has lain buried for centuries and seen tribute paid to it by generations of local inhabitants. But what happens when the bones are removed and Humpty once more stalks the Earth?

"This collection brings together Humpty's Bones, a special introduction and author's notes by Simon Clark as well as a new long short story called Danger Signs about a group of children who investigate an abandoned military bunker and find that it is not quite as abandoned as they expected."

Commentary: I read a Simon Clark novel maybe... ten years ago? It was The Fall, I think. In any event, I'll admit that I didn't find it much to my tastes, but saying that, a decade on, I'm certainly prepared to give Humpty's Bones a shot. For one thing, it's nice and short, and there's every chance it'll be the perfect shock to my system after a thousand pages of hard sci-fi. Not to mention that it's stuffed full of extra stuff, as above, and I do ever so enjoy my extras. Speaking of which...

by Scott Westerfeld

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
27/05/10 by Simon & Schuster

Review Priority:
2 (Fair)

Plot Synopsis: "It's been a few years since rebel Tally Youngblood took down the uglies/pretties/specials regime. Without those strict roles and rules, the world is in a complete cultural renaissance. Tech-heads flaunt their latest gadgets, kickers spread gossip and trends, and "surge monkeys" are hooked on extreme plastic surgery. And it's all monitored on a bazillion different cameras. The world is like a gigantic game of American Idol. Whoever is getting the most buzz gets the most votes. Popularity rules.

"As if being fifteen doesn't suck enough, Aya Fuse's rank of 451,369 is so low, she's a total nobody. An extra. But Aya doesn't care; she just wants to lie low with her drone, Moggle. And maybe kick a good story for herself.

"Then Aya meets a clique of girls who pull crazy tricks, yet are deeply secretive of it. Aya wants desperately to kick their story, to show everyone how intensely cool the Sly Girls are. But doing so would propel her out of extra-land and into the world of fame, celebrity... and extreme danger. A world she's not prepared for."

Commentary: I'll say that Extras doesn't sound nearly so appealing as the first volumes of The Uglies Trilogy did, and the talk of diminishing returns amongst readers of that series hasn't exactly filled me with confidence, but I've enjoyed all the Scott Westerfeld I've read to date (which is to say Leviathan and Uglies), so I'll certainly try this young adult satire on for size once I'm all caught-up with the rest of the trilogy.

Sum: Tales from the Afterlives
by David Eagleman

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
01/04/10 by Canongate

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "In this startling book, David Eagleman shows us forty possibilities of life beyond death. With wit and humanity, he asks the key questions about existence, hope, technology and love. These short stories are full of big ideas and bold imagination."

Commentary: Stephen Fry - all-round national treasure and host of a wonderful panel show here in the UK called QI - says I "will not read a more dazzling book [than Sum] this year," and when Stephen Fry says things, I listen. Enough said. I'm not a religious sort at all, but this looks just lovely. It's already got pride of place on my bedside table!

Saturday 27 March 2010

Shadow Prowler Giveaway

As per my review earlier today, I didn't love Shadow Prowler, but I did enjoy it - particularly its idiosyncratic narration and endearingly difficult hero. At the very least, the first volume of Alexey Pehov's fantasy trilogy certainly whetted my appetite for the next novel in The Chronicles of Siala, and I'm pleased to announce that thanks to the lovely folks at Simon and Schuster, I have three copies of Shadow Prowler to give away, that some of you might have a chance to judge this very fine, if somewhat problematically paced debut for yourselves.

As with the Sam Sykes giveaway a wee while back, all you have to do to stand a chance of winning one of these rare beauties is send an email to thespeculativescotsman [at] googlemail [dot] com (replacing the words in square brackets with the corresponding symbols) with the answer to the following question:

What item does Shadow Harold steal from the duke of Avendoom's mansion?

As before, you'll be able to find the answer easily in the text of The Speculative Scotsman's review of Shadow Prowler.

So, to re-iterate in three easy steps.

1. Read the review of Shadow Prowler here
2. Figure out what Shadow Harold steals from Avendoom's duke
3. Send an email with your answer to thespeculativescotsman [at] googlemail [dot] com with "Shadow Prowler Giveaway" in the subject header

You can enter any time between now and Wednesday; I'll be announcing the lucky winners on April 1st - no fooling! Winners will be drawn at random, as per usual, and thanks to the generosity of Simon and Schuster, I'm going to be able to accept entries from anywhere in the world, so don't by shy of entering if you're in the United States or elsewhere - although if you're lucky enough to win, let it be said your book might take a bit longer to get to you than it would if you lived somewhere sensible.

Please do include your name and postal address in the body text of your entry email. Also, no gaming the system. Only one entry per person, or I'll be forced to void all your entries.

That's all the small print.

Now again, I say: go!

Book Review: Shadow Prowler by Alexey Pehov

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"After centuries of calm, the Nameless One is stirring. An army is gathering: giants, ogres and other creatures joining forces from across the Desolate Lands, united for the first time in history under one black banner. By the spring, or perhaps sooner, the Nameless One and his forces will be at the walls of the great city of Avendoom. Unless Shadow Harold, master thief, can find some way to stop them.

"Professional thief Shadow Harold on his quest for a magic Horn that will restore peace to the kingdom of Siala. Accompanied by an elfin princess, ten Wild Hearts - the most experienced and dangerous royal fighters - and the King's court jester (who may be more than he seems... or less), Harold must outwit angry demons, escape the clutches of a band of hired murderers, survive ten bloody skirmishes... and reach the burial grounds before dark. Can he escape a fate worse than death?"


Ten years ago, Alexey Pehov was an orthodontist. In 2001, he put aside his laughing gas and dentist's drill to pen Stealth in the Shadows, the first in a fantasy trilogy published to great acclaim the next year. A decade on, he's sold over a million copies of the nine bestselling novels he now has to his name.

So why haven't we heard of him? Well, all this happened in Russia (where fantasy fiction reads you). It's a pleasure, then, to see such a huge name finally debut to English-speaking territories, and while a slow start and some weighty worldbuilding means the newly retitled Shadow Prowler doesn't put its best foot forward, ultimately, volume one of The Chronicles of Siala represents the tentative first steps of a hugely entertaining new voice in genre literature which I for one will look forward to reading more of in the future - that is, as and when Night Watch translator Andrew Bromfield has worked his linguistic magic on the next novels in the trilogy.

Shadow Prowler begins with a sequence that will remind many readers of the early outings of Scott Lynch's gentleman thief Locke Lamora, in which Shadow Harold - the quirky anti-hero whose misadventures are the exclusive concern of this fiction - steals silently into the mansion of Avendoom's duke in order that he might five-finger the small, golden dog statuette he has been contracted to recover. But Harold's stealthy efforts are disturbed when the duke is murdered before his eyes by the Master, a mysterious antagonist who - though he remains unseen for the duration - lurks around the fringes of every evil act Harold encounters throughout Shadow Prowler.

After an exhilarating opening, however, Pehov's first novel mires itself in a dismaying mess of dense, derivative worldbuilding, with regular infodumps along the way for added value. There are gnomes, elves and orcs in the world of The Chronicles of Siala; goblins, dwarves, demons and dragons, too. Shadow Prowler seems determined in its first few chapters to introduce to its otherwise straightforward quest narrative nearly every fantasy cliché you can think to conjure up. That said, all the back-story serves some purpose, and you get the feeling the myriad races Pehov introduces will play a vastly larger part in the second and third parts of the series. Nevertheless, there are innumerable better ways to set the scene and establish a setting than by offering up scrolls of text.

Some readers may not last the course. Those who do will find their efforts rewarded when Harold is forced out of hiding by the King and set on a course his sensibilities insist he must see through: to travel to the ends of the earth in search of an artifact while will greatly diminish the power of the Nameless One, whose legions will otherwise soon trample Avendoom and the lands beyond.

Shadow Prowler offers little closure in terms of the quest Harold and his odd assortment of companions undertake, and so it is difficult to come to any sort of conclusion as to the overall merits of the tale. One can only imagine that many of the narrative traps Pehov sets will only be sprung in the later novels which will together complete The Chronicles of Siala. Thus, readers who demand resolution from their fiction would perhaps be better to hold off on this series until it sees completion, but those of us prepared to dip our literary toes into a pool of fantasy substantially deeper than meets the eye will find much to enjoy in Shadow Prower.

In particular, Harold is an excellent, if out-of-the-ordinary narrator. Opinionated, difficult and insulting, he takes some getting used to, but one Pehov finds the rhythms of Harold's increasingly idiosyncratic voice, it works, and wonderfully. His first-person narration, whether obfuscated or accentuated by Bromfield's translation, is packed full of disarmingly charming touches, such as Harold's insistence on referring to himself in the third-person when he's engaged in adventure and general derring-do. His frank and humourous asides make Shadow Prowler than much more personable an experience.

Alexey Pehov doesn't make a great first impression with Shadow Prowler, but as the story gradually gathers steam and Harold sets out on the daunting quest at the heart of The Chronicles of Siala, the pace picks pick up and the world begins to come alive. It remains to be seen whether or not this trilogy represents the best and brightest in epic fantasy, but from the halfway point on, Pehov seems to grow more confident with every page, characters quickly come into their own and the journey hastens towards a destination that is pungent with promise. In its own right, Shadow Prowler has a few problems, most notably its protracted opening, but notwithstanding that, it makes for a very fine debut, and if you can stand to look at Pehov's foundling fantasy as but the first part of a much larger endeavour, well... It ticks all the boxes.


Shadow Prowler
by Alexey Pehov
April 2010, Simon & Schuster

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Recommended and Related Reading

The Book Depository

Friday 26 March 2010

Coming Attractions: The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett

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Earlier in the week, The Speculative Scotsman reviewed "the most impressive horror fiction debut since Joe Hill." I also wrote that Mr Shivers, the breathtaking debut of Robert Jackson Bennett, represents "a staggeringly persuasive argument for the infinite possibilities of the horror novel."

So it's safe to say I liked it.

Just a day later - but not a dollar short, no sir - Orbit Books, by way of a cover reveal on their blog, stealth announced Bennett's second novel, The Company Man. First of all, here's the synopsis:

"A trolley car pulls into the station with eleven dead bodies inside. Four minutes before, the inhabitants were seen boarding at the previous station. All are dead. And all of them are union.

"The year is 1919. The McNaughton Corporation is the pinnacle of American industry. They built airships that cross the seas. Guns that won the Great War. And above all, the city of Evesden. But something is rotten at the heart of Evesden.

"Caught between the union and the company, between the police and the victims, Hayes must find the truth behind the city before it kills him."

And the cover, as above, is, another gorgeous piece of work by Lauren Panepinto that riffs brilliantly off her work on the art adorning Mr Shivers and very much embodies the noir and retro-futuristic elements she cites of The Company Man's narrative.

Not to be needlessly reductive, but between the cover, the synopsis and Lauren's description, I'm put in mind of Jeff Vandermeer's fantastically dark Finch. A high bar to reach, perhaps, though if Bennett's debut is any indication, I don't doubt he'll rise to the challenge.

In any event, shortly after a session of burbling on Twitter about how much I'd enjoyed Mr Shivers, the one - the only - Robert Jackson Bennett got in touch. It's always a pleasure to hear from an author you admire, and the timing in this case was so perfect I couldn't resist asking the gentleman a few questions about The Company Man. I hope to have a longer conversation with Robert closer to the publication of his second novel, but for the moment, a few tantalising morsels of information about it have certainly whetted my appetite.

Here's a little of what he had to say. As ever, the questions I put to him are in bold, and his answers, well, aren't. Enjoy!


Much to my surprise, a rather atmospheric synopsis of THE COMPANY MAN appeared on Orbit's book blog a few days ago. I can hardly express how pleased I am that we'll be seeing another novel from you before 2010's out, but before I lose myself to the madness of months of anticipation, might there be anything more can you tell us about THE COMPANY MAN?

Well, the story's set in 1919 in an alternate America, one much more technologically advanced than ours was at that same time. These advancements have come courtesy of the McNaughton Corporation, and have ushered America onto the world stage and into hegemony much sooner than in our timeline. The industrial town of Evesden on the West Coast is their place of operations, and the main character, Hayes, works there as an internal securities agent, nosing out leaks and shady dealing in the upper echelons. When the working classes begin to openly act against McNaughton's virtual monopoly, Hayes is assigned to try and ferret out union sympathizers within the company ranks. But when an underground trolley coasts into a station with nearly everyone on it butchered, Hayes identifies nearly all of the victims as McNaughton workers suspected of sabotage, and soon begins to wonder about exactly where his company came from, and what future they're making for the world.

When THE COMPANY MAN comes out in October, it'll have been a mere ten months since MR SHIVERS hit bookstore shelves. Given that, is it safe to assume you wrote what will be your second published novel before selling your debut?

Yep, I wrote it immediately after MR SHIVERS, and finished it while we were still submitting my debut to publishers. I actually had the rough draft ready well before we even started talking about a second book. I edited it for over a year, and very soon its voice and structure began to change and it wound up something completely different from MR SHIVERS.

That's something that was mentioned when the book was announced, and now you've stressed it yourself, I can't help but wonder: did THE COMPANY MAN represent a conscious effort on your part to write something very different from MR SHIVERS?

Well, there're a lot of reasons for it. One is that I get bored pretty easy. When you write a book, you basically live inside this isolated little world for about a year or more. Sixty percent of your waking thought processes are always stuck in it, to some degree or another. It's like sitting in a small room with a bunch of shelves of stuff on the walls around you, and playing around and trying to see what works with what. And I decided that if I was going to live in a whole new little room for a year I wanted some new toys at the very least. A change of scenery. Maybe I'd get a fan. Maybe it wouldn't be a room at all this time, but a basement. And I figured that if I was enjoying myself, playing around with these new things in a new place, then it'd show through in the writing, and the reader would respond accordingly.

But there was another dimension to it, which was just to try and see if I could do it. A test of will, I guess. MR SHIVERS, really, is a very small, spare book. It's a needle of a story: it's got very little excess, and most of it is functional at the pure, base level. And I wanted to try and broaden out and use a new voice and a new style and try and tackle something that would sprawl. Something much bigger and messier and, potentially, richer and more colorful. There was a technical interest in it.

A lot of the fun in writing is sort of an engineering fun: how the hell are we going to move this thing? How are we going to get water out of this? How tall can this go? When you get it to work, it brings a real satisfaction that I think, say, building the same pretty house over and over again wouldn't. Plenty of people may still be clamoring to live in those houses you make, but you'd get sick of it real quick.

Now THE COMPANY MAN isn't a sequel to MR SHIVERS by any stretch of the imagination, but given that both of your novels are set against similar, alt-historical periods of America, can I ask if there's any chance they share a world?

No, they don't. I don't consider MR SHIVERS to be alternate history so much as a myth. It works in archetypes and images and language we're all familiar with. I wanted it to live in our collective subconscious. It was supposed to be like a fable from long ago, like Odin creating the world from the corpse of Ymir: it's impossible, and it takes place in an older country, but it still feels true. You know it didn't happen, but it's describing true things.

THE COMPANY MAN is alternate history for sure. It plays around with who's in the White House, how World War I happened (or didn't happen, or hasn't happened yet), and how telecommunications and transportation can show up to the party early and change things. It's much more grounded in its relation to reality and the present than MR SHIVERS was. Those who didn't like the quiet and unspoken mythology of MR SHIVERS may cotton on to THE COMPANY MAN more, since it's pretty loud and brassy in its genre and its tone. It focuses on the birth and potential decline of a city, one I intended to make as real as possible, with its many boroughs and stratifications and customs and odd manner of speech. It's meant to be a somewhat foreign place, but still one you recognize. I mean, if you see a busy street in the morning, you’ll probably figure out a lot of what's going on no matter what city it's in or what language they're speaking.


It was a real pleasure chatting with Robert about his work, even briefly. My heartfelt thanks to him for fielding my questions so graciously.

Mr Shivers has to be the best book I've read this year, so I've got my pre-order in for The Company Man already. Readers: if you know what's good for you, you'd do the same.

Thursday 25 March 2010

The Living Dead Book Blog

Yesterday, news broke that George A. Romero's first novel, The Living Dead - which we'd all been hoping to get our grubby paws on in July - was to be delayed. An unfortunate development, perhaps, but given how long we've waited for the creator of the modern zombie to turn his attention to fiction, another few months are hardly going to do us any harm, and if the book's the better for it, I'm all for postponing its release.

In my heart of hearts, I don't know that The Living Dead can be as definitive a zombie novel as the trilogy of films comprising Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead has been in cinema, but giving Romero a wee while longer to polish his undead narrative can only be a good thing. Kudos, then, to all those at publisher Headline Books for their patience. Too often you see disappointing books and films and video games rushed out the door simply to meet unrealistic release dates when a little more time baking in the creative oven would have done them a world of good. I, for one, am glad that The Living Dead won't suffer from such short-sighted treatment.

And so, with The Living Dead delayed, the Headline Zombies' Living Dead Book blog is going on a short hiatus. I'm told it'll be "back with a bang," but let's not get ahead of ourselves - if you ask me, it's going out with one, too, courtesy of a short essay contributed by none other than yours truly.

I'll be reposting it here in a few, short days, but for the moment, the only way to read my controversy-courting opinion piece on how and why the undead have started running is by visiting the Living Dead Book blog.

What are you waiting for?

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Book Review: Solar by Ian McEwan

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"Michael Beard is a Nobel prize-winning physicist whose best work is behind him. Trading on his reputation, he speaks for enormous fees, lends his name to the letterheads of renowned scientific institutions and half-heartedly heads a government-backed initiative tackling global warming. A compulsive womaniser, Beard finds his fifth marriage floundering.

"But this time it is different: she is having the affair, and he is still in love with her. When Beard's professional and personal worlds collide in a freak accident, an opportunity presents itself for Beard to extricate himself from his marital mess, reinvigorate his career and save the world from environmental disaster."


Only a hundred pages into the latest novel from perhaps the greatest living British writer do you begin to grasp the conflict at the core of Solar. As with the vast majority of McEwan's fiction, the narrative turns on a single, earth-shattering event that rips out the rug from under its protagonist. In Solar, the game-changer occurs upon sometime Nobel laureate Michael Beard's return from a week observing first-hand the effects of climate change in the Arctic circle - which is to say, drinking copious quantities of wine and inventing amusing anecdotes to recount at a later date.

Eager for the comforts of hearth and home, Beard returns to London on an early flight only to find one of his research students in his luxurious apartment, naked but for Beard's own dressing gown. The philandering physicist isn't surprised to find his fifth - count 'em - wife with another man, but when Beard confronts the intruder, an already precarious situation develops into a farce of tragic proportions.

Beard is perhaps McEwan's most repellent protagonist to date, and considering the murderers, paedophiles and pimply teenagers who have narrated some of his previous tales, that's saying something. Beard is old, fat and full of himself; he eats, cheats and greets. He is "scalded by public disgrace... corrupted by a whiff of failure [and] consumed by his cranky affair with sunbeams". His inner monologue invariably borders on the unspeakable, by turns racist, lecherous and homophobic.

But Beard's greatest sin is surely his appetite - and I don't merely mean his enduring love for salt and vinegar crisps, though you get the sense that habit alone will see him in an early grave. From the outset, he consumes. He has consumed five wives, the latest of whom outright detests him. He consumes headlines, opinions, science, gossip. In fact, he has made his name in quantum physics by consuming and regurgitating Einstein for his hypothesis, the Beard-Einstein Conflation, earning the Nobel prize that is Beard's only real success by riding on the theoretical coattails of that scientist's breakthroughs. He is a compulsive consumer, and it's a credit to McEwan that Solar remains compelling in spite of its protagonist's unapologetic repugnance.

In large part, that's thanks to the black and brilliantly British sense of humour that pervades the narrative. From the discovery of "an ancient rasher of bacon doubling as a bookmark" between the pages of a valuable first edition to Beard's dreadful scheme to trick his fifth wife into thinking he is entertaining attractive company; and from a packet of salt and vinegar crisps shared (or not quite) on a train ride to an inconvenient call of nature during his weeklong expedition to the Arctic circle, there are frequent moments of dark slapstick more befitting The Mighty Boosh than the latest novel from the great nation's most esteemed author.

The humour is sharp-edged, of course; a fine satirical blade held tightly against the throat of a world procrastinating on its not-quite-fears of climate change. A long and wonderfully cutting lecture Beard gives midway through Solar forms the basis of McEwan's framing of the arguments for and against, but these concerns are not the crux of this novel: Solar doesn't preach in the fashion of Saturday. It is a character study at its heart, a startling triptych of the movements - both literal and metaphorical - of a physically and morally unpleasant man the whims of fate have placed in a position of power. In that, as in its every other purpose, Solar is a tremendous success.

Packed full of observations both sacred and profane and characters who will challenge your understanding of any number of issues, Solar is far from the dry tale of the end-times many feared it might be. Rather, McEwan's novel is an alarming parable of man and movement; the movements man should make, that is, set against those he selfishly does. Shocking, hilarious and unashamedly English, Solar will surely take its place alongside the very best of this breathtaking author's back-catalogue. Let it be said, Ian McEwan is a very clever monkey indeed.


by Ian McEwan
March 2010, Jonathan Cape

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