Friday 30 April 2010

A Hat Trick for Mr Mieville

Day before yesterday, The City and the City, that exquisite hybrid of crime fiction and conceptual speculation, became only the fifth novel - after Take Back Plenty, The Sparrow, Christopher Priest's The Separation and Air by Geoff Ryman - to win both the BSFA and the Arthur C. Clarke award.

Not only that: China Mieville became the very first author to have won that latter acclaim three times. They honoured him in 2001 for Perdido Street Station, the beginning of the Bas-Lag trilogy, then again in 2005 for its rather underrated conclusion, Iron Council. And now, well... the gent's gone and done it again.

Three cheers are in order, I think. One for each of his Clarke trophies! Wait, is there even a trophy? Never mind. As Niall Harrison observes over on Torque Control, it's a judgment "which instantly looks like one of those decisions that couldn't have gone any other way," though let's be honest here: the six novels on the 2010 shortlist represented an incredible and diverse collection of speculative fiction, each and every one of which was in its own way award-caliber fodder.

But there's no questioning the wisdom of the Clarke panel's decision. Not to toot my own horn here, but as I Tweeted shortly before the ceremonies began, The City and the City is a book deserving of every inch of the praise and acclaim that's been heaped on it, and of all the candidates - of the four I've read, I should say - far and away the most extraordinary. Would that I had a review to link to, but I'm the blog wasn't even a wicked twinkle in my eye when Mieville's last novel hit bookstore shelves, so let's just say it was my favourite book of 2009 and leave it at that.

So. Huge congrats to China, first and foremost, but also to Julie Crisp, Chloe Healy, and all at Macmillan and Tor UK for their well deserved triumph.

But I'm not just posting to pat everyone involved on the back. Some kind soul thought to record the author's short acceptance speech, and as per usual, China, in the space of three mere minutes, manages to be illuminating, funny and touching. Here:

I very nearly teared up there at the end. Would that China's dear mum, for whom he wrote The City and the City - and indeed the novel is dedicated to her memory - had been around to see her son so honoured. I've no doubt she'd have been the proudest parent in all of London. And as those of us who've had the pleasure of China's latest novel know, London is the world.

But transcripted for your convenience, here are a few of the most prescient points China raised in his speech:

"Earlier this year, in response to a critique of the Booker prize, for ignoring some of the most exceptional literature out there - by one of the shortlistees; by Kim Stanley Robinson - the judge, the academic and writer John Mullan explained that the reason he didn't consider science fiction was because science fiction is bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other.

"He totally means us! I know it's very very cheap to rally the crown against a pantomime villain - but I never said I was expensive...

"One of the many reasons - I know we whine about this incessantly - one of the many reasons that I think that this is such a shame, this kind of contumely, is because as anyone who's been online knows and has looked around at the debate around this prize and science fiction prizes in general knows that by contrast science fiction readers are among the most critical, the most - they combine an extraordinary generosity with an extraordinarily rigorous critique in a way that I never see among many other readers. You know, the seriousness, the systemacicity, the fascination, the rigour with which the readers of this extraordinary field read is a constant amazement to me, and constantly something I'm very proud of.

"I think, at its best, they are the greatest readers and the greatest fiction out there, and I'm very very grateful to those readers for being open to a little bit of crime in their speculation. And just to conclude, I'd also say I'm extremely grateful to readers of crime for being open to a little speculation with their murder. It's meant a great deal to me to be read outside those traditional areas."

You've got to love a guy who can slip "contumely" into everyday speech with a perfectly straight face. I'm exactly the type to pride myself on knowing the meaning of all sorts of obscure words, and even I had to look that one up!

But to my point. I wonder, are we really "the greatest readers" of fiction? No man's above lip-service, I suppose, especially when honoured as China was on Wednesday night, but he honestly doesn't seem the type to be stroking our egos just because we really rather like his books. Certainly we are critical; sometimes overly so, I'd say. And speaking for myself, I know I'm capable of very generous praise when a book truly calls out to me - as Kraken did last week, for instance (review here).

And yet, China had barely finished giving his very gracious acceptance speech, calling us all lovely things, thanking us for our acceptance of him, in turn, for "being open to a little bit of crime in [our] speculation" and lo and behold, a debate calling into question the very openness China was speaking of was raging across the blogosphere. Was The City and the City really science fiction anyway, the instigators asked?

To which question I would answer, after a not inconsiderable amount of thought: pshaw. I don't often take idle talk personally, but this particular thing, this bothered me. How incredibly discriminatory, to consider - even for a moment - the dismissal out of hand of a novel that unquestionably does touch on speculative concepts simply because it also incorporates elements of another genre. Not only that; it's a slippery slope. Should science fiction that has within its pages allusions of intimacy be thus deigned romance? I mean, really.

It's time likes these that I'm reminded of how utterly reductive the notion of genre is.

More on which subject soon...

In the meantime, let this be an open forum for celebration of China's landmark triumph, and perhaps further discussion of the notion of our worth as critics of speculative fiction. Lest we forget the question on everyone's lips: to those of you who've read the Clarke award-winner, do you think its incorporation of tropes more typical of other genres should somehow have excluded it from consideration?

I'll totally fight anyone who says so... ;)

Thursday 29 April 2010

Book Review: The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan

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"Young Wynter Moorehawke returns to court with her dying father to find her old home cloaked in fear. The once-benevolent King Jonathon is now a violent despot, terrorising his people while his son Alberon plots a coup from exile. Then darkness spreads as the King appoints Alberon's half-brother Razi as heir. Wynter must watch her friend obey his father's untenable commands, as those they love are held to ransom. And at the heart of matters lies a war machine so lethal that none dare speak of it. The kingdom would belong to its master, yet the consequences of using it are too dire to consider.

"But temptation has ever been the enemy of reason..."

The greatest failing of The Poison Throne is its beginning: the first handful of chapters, which chronicle young Wynter Moorehawk and her ailing father's telling return to the Royal capital after a five-year exile abroad, are a rather muddled affair. And beginnings are imperative things - particularly the beginnings of fantasy sequences such as this, a far-reaching tale stretched out across three books (with a prequel still to come). Never is it more important to grasp an audience's attention than when setting out to tell a story that will take months, if not years of sustained interest to hear told in full, and debut Irish author Celine Kiernan seems too tentative in laying the necessary groundwork for the narrative to come.

It's not a matter of world-building, of which there's precious little of in The Poison Throne - though Kiernan gradually communicates all she needs to of the kingdom Wynter and company must somehow restore - but rather of character. The author seems to be getting to grips with her modest cast even as we, the readers, endeavour to begin an understanding of them, and though it's not long before their patterns and quirks are established, pivotal events - perhaps the most pivotal in all of The Poison Throne, which tells, for all its promise of greater things to come, a small and admirably focused story - pivotal events have passed by nearly unnoticed in the initial chorus of confusion that comes of a lack of proper context.

Better, certainly, that we felt their import in the first instance, but Kiernan, once she and characters have found their feet, shores up all that is of significance before the narrative progresses any further. Much of what follows is political maneuvering: courtly intrigue and princely hijinx courtesy of our teenaged protagonist's proximity to the titular throne, in desperate crisis after an attempted coup. Wynter's half-brother is next in line to rule the kingdom, but the people think Razi an unwelcome pretender; while her father would make for a valuable ally to the tyrannical monarch who sits for the 14th century, South of France-inspired kingdom - if only his health were to improve. Wynter is caught in the middle of it all, but wily and wise, she is far from powerless to stop the crimson tide of an uprising.

The unfortunate tentativeness that mars the first, foundling stages of The Poison Throne does nothing to diminish the energy and enthusiasm which Kiernan brings to her tale thereafter. The endless politicking might sound tiresome, and though it goes on perhaps a touch longer than necessary, the author's tremendously pacy prose and a cast of characters constantly in flux (once they've been established, that is) make all the puppeteering easy to swallow. Kiernan spins a colourful, vivacious web of a narrative that, while slow to come into its own, moves in time at an effortless gallop: from a trip to the dungeon with a forbidden feline to a fight with a drunken king, one delightful encounter follows another.

In the end, it's hard not to fall for The Poison Throne. It has a heart of gold that shines through from one cover to the other. It's not quite Young Adult fantasy - class conflict, racism and threats of rape find their way into the narrative - nor quite the full mature monty, but Celine Kiernan makes her debut work as something that straddles the line between the two. Down-to-earth, endearing and so energetic as to be exhausting at times, The Poison Throne is a fine first novel, and moreover, you get the sense that from here on out, things will only get better. Roll on The Crowded Shadows...


The Poison Throne
by Celine Kiernan
April 2010, Orbit

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Wednesday 28 April 2010

Sci-Fi Fatigue

The bastard offspring of The Speculative Scotsman and Walker of Worlds says hello - that is, before burbling at length about the dearth of fresh new ideas in science fiction. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It gives me great pleasure to tell you all that today, I'm the featured guest author on at Mark Chitty's excellent blog. The gent was kind enough to invite me, not to mention a who's-who of excellent writers from across the blogosphere, to contribute an article as part of the Sci-Fi Appreciation Month, and what did I go and write for him? Why, some grouching, of course. What else? Here's a link to the piece:

By all means, do pop on over to Walker of Worlds and share your thoughts, all. I'd be interested to hear if it's just me that's tired of AI and FTL drives...

And for those of you wondering where all the sci-fi coverage is on this here blog, well... stay tuned. I'll be reposting Sci-Fi Fatigue on TSS at a later date, I think, with deleted scenes and everything - a director's cut of the article, as it were - and I've already scheduled some reviews for May that should soundly answer that question.

So. Who among you has binged, as I did, on one particular genre for so long that the experience damn near sickened you off it?

The Wise Man's Deadline

Well, here it is: the news everyone and their mother's been waiting for. Book two of The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss, has been slated - definitively, this time - for publication in March 2011.

Here's an excerpt from the latest post on Pat's blog:

"My editor asked me if I could have the book done by September.

"I thought about it. I thought about her 27 points and my ever-changing 50-60 points. I thought about who I can still use as beta readers, and how many drafts I’ll be able go through in four months. I thought about how many times I will personally be able to read the book in four months.

"I said I was sure I could finish it by September.

"She asked me if I was sure. Really sure.

"I thought about it. Back in 2007, I was sure I’d have the book done by 2008. But I was hugely ignorant and optimistic back then. So I was dead fucking wrong. That caused a lot of grief.

"I told her I was really sure I could have it finished by September."

September, then, is the delivery date - we have it from the horse's very mouth - and given the huge importance, not to mention the sheer size of The Wise Man's Fear, it'll take approximately six months to ready the manuscript for release. So March. Next year.

And you know what? I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm absolutely fine with that. I loved The Name of the Wind as much, I should think, as any other Rothfuss reader - though it did have its downsides (don't shoot me). And while I'd certainly like to be reading the next chapter sooner, simply to have in plain sight an end to the delays which have plagued The Wise Man's Fear is a huge relief.

Rothfuss, on the other hand, seems to expect an outburst of great electronic vengeance and furious internet angst at what he thinks will be percieved as another delay - and the comments being closed on his blog post is an almighty testament to that. He writes:

"Honestly, it would be way easier for me to sit on this information for a while. I could wait until the date was a little closer, thereby avoid some of the great wailing and gnashing of teeth I expect will follow this announcement. That shit brings me no joy. It damages my calm and makes it harder for me to write."

Me? I think stepping up to the plate and saying, so far in advance, that the final draft will by done in September and published in March is a ballsy move. He's certainly putting himself out there in the event he doesn't make his deadline. For that, I say the man should be applauded.

Roll on The Wise Man's Fear, eh?

Tuesday 27 April 2010

The Space Jockey Rides Out

Credit where credit's due: Speculative Horizons beat me to the punch on this particular news tidbit, which I cleverly favourited upon finding - the better to write about at a later date once I'd rebooted the old slowpoke - before woefully neglecting after a beastly worm seized the opportunity to destroy my wireless mouse driver, so do... well, let's take a breath. Do pop on over there to read the James Long's thoughts on Ridley Scott's forthcoming Alien prequel.

Me? I'm not, I'll confess, half so hopeful as my considered blogger colleague about Alien Zero or whatever the studio ends up calling this strange animal. The initial announcement, before Scott attached himself to the film - like a facehugger to a, umm, face - had me up in arms about another ghastly knock-off further diluting one of cinema's most potent and powerful franchises. When news broke of Ridley's return, I was slightly more hopeful. But only slightly.

Because let's be honest. The man's made some amazing films in his time, but his time, by and large, is long since past. Let's take stock. 1979 gave us Alien. The breathtaking sci-fi opus Blade Runner hit in 1982. In 1985, Ridley Scott directed Legend. 1989 wrought Black Rain. And in 1991, Thelma and Louise. That's a hell of a run, no question, but nearly two decades have passed since that last, and all Scott has to show for the time is one fantastic film, in the form of Gladiator, one reasonably good action flick - Black Hawk Down - and a whole lot of guff. Utter. Bloody. Rubbish.

Seriously. Go on and take a look at the IMDB page. We have the execrable Hannibal, the misguided Kingdom of Heaven, and A Good Year, a dreadful film in which Russell Crowe took a break from mauling journalists to drink some fine wine. Ridley Scott directed GI Jane, for goodness sake. Need I say any more?

Maybe this year's Robin Hood retooling will be decent. It remains to be seen. Certainly Scott is capable of making good cinema - great cinema, for that matter - but recalling this rather storied director's back-catalogue of film, there's a good as chance his latest vehicle for Aussie abuser Russell Crowe will be more self-indulgent tripe. I hope it won't; truly I do. But how quickly we forget.

So I'm saying: let's not go counting our chickens yet. For what it's worth, I'm glad that Ridley Scott is directing this Alien prequel. I hope he redeems himself with it; perhaps it'll mark a return to form for him. There's got to be something to it to have Scott reneging on his vow never to make a sequel, and the exploration of the space jockeys alluded to in the groundbreaking original is a fine foundation to build upon. And though cinema does not spring from visual effects and creature design alone, the potential participation of HR Giger is terribly exciting... though I would stress potential participation. This MTV interview, from which all the chatter has sprung, is just Scott throwing hopeful notions around.

But there's no question about it: to even consider taking it back to one of the people who made the first film such a revolution in cinema is a step in the right direction.

I hope for the best. I do not, for a single, solitary second, expect it.


A few hours after I wrote this article, what do you know? Another telling little tidbit slipped out, this time from When asked if Scott is developing the prequel as a standalone film or a potential series, the director had this to say:

"It’ll be two. It’ll be prequel one and two. Then Alien 1."

Which I think rather speaks for itself.

At least they're not roping poor Ripley in on these dubious prequel shenanigans...

Monday 26 April 2010

Book Review: Dimiter by William Peter Blatty

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"Albania in the 1970s. A prisoner suspected of being an enemy agent is held by state security. An unsettling presence, though subjected to unimaginable torture he maintains an eerie silence. He escapes - and on the way to freedom, completes a mysterious mission. The prisoner is Dimiter, the American agent from Hell.

The scene shifts to Jerusalem, focusing on Hadassah Hospital and a cast of engaging, colorful characters: the brooding Christian Arab police detective, Peter Meral; Dr. Moses Mayo, a troubled but humorous neurologist; Samia, an attractive, sharp-tongued nurse; and assorted American and Israeli functionaries and hospital staff. All become enmeshed in a series of baffling, inexplicable deaths, until events explode in a surprising climax."

This is not The Exorcist.

This is a novel exponentially more accomplished than that infamous, some-might-say overblown fiction; its finely-honed narrative is concerned with the little things above all else, personal revelations grounded in relentlessly authentic reality. Heartfelt, authoritative and surprising, Dimiter is William Peter Blatty's most impressive and reverent novel to date.

And it's been a long time coming. The idiosyncratic author's first full-length fiction since Legion in 1983 - and with roots reaching further back than even then - Blatty asserts of Dimiter in a postscript that it is "the most personally important novel of my career," and the intimacy of his determined investment in the enigma at the heart of this slim volume rings true. He comes at the so-called mystery of goodness from any number of angles, by implication and insinuation via an array of perspectives - an Albanian officer tasked with the interrogation of an agent apparently of Hell, and in Jerusalem a doctor and a detective amongst myriad others - so that when the curtain is finally pulled back, the startling sight that awaits is no simple thing to parse.

The action, such as it is, occurs in the mid-1970s. A feta cheese seller is taken prisoner by the atheist Albanian authorities on account of an old blind man's vague misgivings, and tortured. Having spoken not a word to his captors, he escapes, leaving a trail of dead men in his wake, among them the torturer's sadistic son. The next year, in the holy city, murder is in the air - and mysticism. Two lunatics calling themselves Christ clash in an asylum; a clown seemingly cures a terminally ill young boy; the broken body of a Yemeni criminal falls from a Russian church tower. Somehow, Mayo and Meral, friends and colleagues of a sort, must decode this strange sequence of events before it swells to engulf Jerusalem in even greater tragedy.

It can take a while for readers to grasp the narrative imperative of some novels, but the deliberate patience of Dimiter trounces even the most measured of those. Blatty only shows his hand in the last fifty pages, as the large cast at last come together, in life and in death, to uncover the formless, hitherto unknowable intrigue that has haunted the somber narrative from the offing. In the interim, Blatty offsets the tension with a range of quirky characters that are intermittently perplexing and hilariously irreverent: a plaque that concludes "so eat the soup and leave the noodles" will stay with me for a long while yet. Dimiter is a triumph not for its mystery, though it has that in spades, but for the brilliantly individual people which populate its pages.

Dimiter has its faults. Dreams are rather overwrought with such predictable symbolism as to take the edge off the unspeakable, ethereal goings-on elsewhere, and latterly, Blatty takes to rounding off chapters with melodramatic one-liners and penny dreadful revelations that would do Dickens himself proud. These minor misgivings aside, Dimiter is a superb novel: compulsive reading that never approaches the repulsiveness of The Exorcist. It might have taken him twenty-odd years, but Blatty has outdone himself. Dimiter is diffuse and atmospheric, suspenseful and hugely satisfying.

by William Peter Blatty
March 2010, Forge

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Sunday 25 April 2010

The BoSS for 25/04/10

Wasn't last week's edition of the BoSS a doozy? Well this time out, tough though it must have been for the various proofs and advance reading copies which have arrived over the past seven days to keep pace with the likes of China Mieville, Philip Pullman, Peter V. Brett and David Mitchell... they've made it a much closer race than I'd have thought possible. Two books in particular stand out: Black Hills by Dan Simmons and Stories, the forthcoming collection of shorts edited by and featuring contributions from Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio I was lucky enough to recieve a manuscript of. Which isn't to slight the rest of this week's exciting haul...

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 sneak peek at some of the books - past, present and future - you can expect to see coverage of here on The Speculative Scotsman in the coming weeks and months.


Black Hills
by Dan Simmons

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

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "Paha Saha is a Red Indian shaman who as a young boy at the Battle of Little Bighorn takes the ghost of the dying General Custer into his own body. Sixty years later, as an old man working as a dynamiter on Mount Rushmore, he plots to blow it up. Meanwhile, Custer finds himself trapped in a strange, dark place and begins to write sensuous, heartbreaking missives to his beloved wife.

"Thus begins an intricate narrative that sweeps across decades of American history, building up a portrait of one country's relentless expansion and what was lost and destroyed in its path. Black Hills is historical fiction with Dan Simmons' trademark twist. He weaves in real places, events and people with his own uniquely weird take on reality to create a portrait of a world that is hilarious and tragic, spiritual and disturbing."

Commentary: As I explained a few weeks ago, I love me a little polar exploring, so it's no surprise that The Terror - an epic tale of Ernest Shackleton's lost expedition to break through the legendary North-West passage - is one of my very favourite fictions of all time. Add to that: I've been reading Dan Simmons for a long time - in point of which fact, Hyperion was one of the first sci-fi novels I read in what I consider my adult life - and though I found the overlong and self-indulgent Drood rather lacking, I nevertheless enjoyed it for the most part. Black Hills, his latest, is significantly shorter than Simmons' last tomes, with less potential for limitless digression; a step in the right direction, if you ask me. To my dismay, the premise doesn't seem to involve the Antarctic at all... but I won't let that put me off.

The Reapers Are the Angels
by Alden Bell

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
03/09/10 by Tor

Review Priority:
2 (Fair)

Plot Synopsis: "God is a slick god. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe...

"Older than her years and completely alone, Temple is just trying to live one day at a time in a post-apocalyptic world, where the undead roam endlessly, and the remnant of mankind who have survived, at times, seem to retain little humanity themselves.

"This is the world she was born into. Temple has known nothing else. Her journey takes her to far-flung places, to people struggling to maintain some semblance of civilization – and to those who have created a new world order for themselves. When she comes across the helpless Maury, she attempts to set one thing right, if she can just get him back to his family in Texas then maybe it will bring redemption for some of the terrible things she's done in her past. Because Temple has had to fight to survive, has done things that she's not proud of and, along the road, she's made enemies.

"Now one vengeful man is determined that, in a world gone mad, killing her is the one thing that makes sense..."

Commentary: The review priority for this one is only so low because its release date is so far out, and I don't personally see the sense in writing about books readers won't be able to get their hands on for another six months - as is the case with Alden Bell's very promising debut. Nevertheless, I'll say that The Reapers Are the Angels looks brilliant by all rights. The premise is excellent, the narrative twist neat, and what I've read of the prose... it's just lovely. Can't wait to get started on this one in earnest.

by Gareth L. Powell

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
10/04/10 by Pendragon Press

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "In an age where interstellar travel is dangerous and unpredictable, and no-one knows exactly where they'll end up, Avril Bradley is a Communications officer onboard a ship sent to re-contact as many of these lost souls as possible.

"But a mysterious explosion strands her in a world of political intrigue, espionage and subterfuge; a world of retired cops, digital ghosts and corporate assassins who fight for possession of computer data that had lain undisturbed for almost a century..."

Commentary: Nice and short, and with Black Hills and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet occupying me at the moment, a quickie would be a fine thing. Gareth L. Powell is a fairly active twitterer whose path I've occasionally crossed on that network, but this'll be my first experience of his fiction. I hope for good things. With less than 100 pages to fill, it shouldn't fall to the endless galaxy-spanning worldbuilding that's put me off science fiction in the past. I've been away from the genre for far too long and Silversands, if it's up to the task, could well be the book to win me back over.

The Whisperers
by John Connolly

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
13/05/10 by Hodder & Stoughton

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "The border between Maine and Canada is porous. Anything can be smuggled across it: drugs, cash, weapons, people.

"Now a group of disenchanted former soldiers has begun its own smuggling operation, and what is being moved is infinitely stranger and more terrifying than anyone can imagine. Anyone, that is, except private detective Charlie Parker, who has his own intimate knowledge of the darkness in men's hearts.

"But the soldiers' actions have attracted the attention of the reclusive Herod, a man with a taste for the strange. And where Herod goes, so too does the shadowy figure that he calls the Captain. To defeat them, Parker must form an uneasy alliance with a man he fears more than any other, the killer known as the Collector..."

Commentary: Hmm. Crime fiction? Perhaps, but from trolling a few other advance reviews, it's not as simple as all that. "A visionary brand of neo-noir," says the Irish Times, with a "macabre narrative... couched in prose that is often allusive and poetic," adds the Independent. And it came with a soundtrack CD - music to read the book by - which tickles a particular fancy of mine. The Whisperers isn't, perhaps, the sort of fare you'd expect The Speculative Scotsman to read, but what do you know? From time to time - though there have been significantly fewer such opportunities since I jump-started the blog - I do dip my toes into other genres. Thus, this sounds like a great break from all the fantasy fare I've been indulging in as of late, and though I've read neither a Charlie Parker book nor indeed anything by John Connolly in the past, I very much mean to get to this before its release date.

Edited by Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
15/06/10 by Headline Review

Review Priority:
5 (Immediate)

Plot Synopsis: "One hell of a huge book of great, exciting stories which will become a uniting force for readers of all forms of imaginative fiction.

"Rather than being dictated by genre, for co-editors Gaiman and Sarrantonio there is only one true distinction in fiction: the one dividing realistic and imaginative fiction. Stories is a collection of the very best original fiction from some of the most imaginative writers in the world, as well as a showcase for some of fiction's newer stars."

Commentary: With contributions from Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio themselves, as well as all-new tales from Richard Adams, Peter Straub, Chuck Palahniuk, Diana Wynne Jones, Gene Wolfe, Joe Hill - and the list goes on - Stories looks like it could be the anthology of 2010. And there's no shortage of prestigious competition in that arena, with George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois' Songs of Love and Death and Sympathy for the Devil from editor Tim Pratt uppermost on my radar. But those collections will have to pull something more impressive than a surprise bunny from their respective hats to outdo the promise of original fiction from such an incredible and wide-ranging selection of authors. Stories could be a compelling argument against genre itself.

Friday 23 April 2010

Book Review: Kraken by China Mieville

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"Deep in the research wing of the Natural History Museum is a prize specimen, something that comes along much less often than once in a lifetime: a perfect, and perfectly preserved, giant squid. But what does it mean when the creature suddenly and impossibly disappears?

"For curator Billy Harrow it's the start of a headlong pitch into a London of warring cults, surreal magic, apostates and assassins. It might just be that the creature he’s been preserving is more than a biological rarity: there are those who are sure it’s a god. 

"A god that someone is hoping will end the world."

The single most surprising thing about Kraken is that, when you get right down to it, it's a comedy. Of course there's more to the latest from multiple award-winning author China Mieville than a wicked sense of humour and some canny wordplay - truly, a great deal more - but when all is said and done, Kraken is an elaborate, endlessly imaginative joke topped off with a punch-line that will take your breath away.

Meet Billy Harrow. An unremarkable curator in London's world-renowned Natural History Museum, Billy's crowning glory is the preservation of a particularly impressive giant squid. Guiding an excited tour-group around the facility one afternoon, he makes a mind-boggling discovery: the nine-metre giant squid, encased in a tank containing thousands of litres of Formalin, has vanished. His first thought, having come upon an ominous absence where the museum's star attraction stood only moments before, echoes the utter bafflement of all those who clamour around the scene of the crime. "What the hell?" indeed.

The guards know nothing; Billy's fellow employees haven't a clue; nor do the police have a scooby as to how someone could possibly have disappeared such a monstrous specimen. Only when the FSRC - the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime unit - pressgang Billy into an unsettling interview does the unlikely hero of Kraken begin to understand how very different London is from the city he thought he knew. The cult squad are a bunch of crazies themselves, but whatever Billy's qualms about Kath, Baron and Vardy, they serve to start him on an apocalyptic journey into the capital's hidden underworld; a journey which takes in all the darkly fantastic sights anyone who's read Mieville in the past will be familiar with.

Which isn't to say that Kraken represents the same old Mieville with a few new tricks. Certainly it treads on ground that the noted New Weird author's devoted readership will recall from the likes of King Rat and Un Lun Dun, literally in the first instance - Mieville does love his London, and in Kraken, London is the world - but also figuratively insofar as Mieville mines such customary subjects as politics, religion and revolution. But he excavates in those very metaphorical mines some extraordinary new material: an astonishing array of cultures and creeds easily the equal of those which made his trilogy of Bas-Lag books so beloved. And the London of Kraken is a city distinct from those Londons Mieville has surveilled in the past.

Of all the author's storied back-catalogue, Kraken most resembles a real-world Perdido Street Station in its unrelenting urban environs - even the sea, you will see, is encased in concrete - though to call Mieville's latest urban fantasy is to do it a grave disservice given the lamentable misappropriation of the term in recent memory. In its thematic concerns and narrative progression, too, Kraken is most similar to the Bas-Lag books: hardly a chapter goes by without a fascinating potted history of one invented faith or race or another - be it the union of magical familiars, the legion of Londonmancers, an embassy of the sea. Some will surely revolt at the notion of a story interrupted for an infodump apropos of apparently nothing, but in time Mieville wraps up each and every one of his demented inventions into the novel's narrative tissue with a deft touch and a fiendishly sinister sense of humour.

Muster up the concentration to penetrate Mieville's characteristically dense prose and you'll find your efforts amply rewarded, but patience is, as ever, a requirement when reading the work of this master craftsman. And yet, outside of Un Lun Dun, Kraken is without a doubt Mieville's most accessible novel to date - though there's no single thing you can point to as conclusive proof of its somewhat commercial sensibilities. Rather, it is a cunning conjunction of forces which work, in coalition, to render Kraken a more approachable narrative: the veracity of its vivid setting, a city whose boundaries are drawn in blood and stone and ink; the popular Lovecraftian connotations of its be-tentacled subject matter; the refinement of Mieville's powerful prose over the years.

Not to mention the author's fiendishly sinister sense of humour, and the whimsical tone with which he tells the tale. A man wearing a Gundam T-shirt practices extreme origami; a body "listlessly [humps] the stony shoreline with the slap-slap of the water"; the Lolcats make an appearance which I won't spoil; while characters discuss the notion of "squid pro quo" and the "squiddity" of how "martyrs [might] emerge from martyrdom's other side." Mieville's is a wit quite without equal. Pointed and gleefully profane, culturally aware but not for a second restrained by mere reality, his narrative turns on misunderstanding, on literal trickery, but none of Mieville's capricious play robs Kraken of its sophistication.

In its way, it is, for all its revelry, as impactful an experience as The City and The City, together with which this novel marks a startling new chapter in the continuing evolution of both the New Weird and its most powerful proponent, Mieville himself. There is nothing stagnant about these waters. Poetic, demented, surprisingly approachable and seething with intelligence, Kraken is a cracking read, no doubt about it.


by China Mieville
May 2010, Macmillan

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Recommended and Related Reading

Thursday 22 April 2010

From Your Blogosphere Correspondent (22/04/10)

Didn't think Your Blogosphere Correspondent would be back so soon? Well, no - neither did I. But then, there's been so much news this week that I'd be drowning trying to round it all up alongside whatever else happens between today and the provisional date I'd planned to get my correspondence on. So. Hello again!

First on the agenda, as with the last edition, has to be... more Apple news. I know, I know. Now that I've found my way around the gorgeous new HTC Desire that I discussed last week, in fact, I know especially what a tremendous turn-off yet another round of iPad and iPhone gossip can be. But it just keeps on coming, and whether or not you or I care particularly, there're plenty of tiddlypeeps out there who do. Thus.

In the wake of the month-long delay of the iPad's launch in the UK, this week saw some truly terrifying news for those gadget fans with an eye to buying a giant iPhone. It's strictly rumour yet, but one reseller - Newton Systems - has priced the entry model (which retails for $499 in the US) at £599, with the 64GB, 3G-enabled iPad looking to fetch £749 hereabouts versus the infinitely more reasonable Stateside price-tag of $699. All of which - if there's any truth to it - is absolutely scandalous. Here in the UK, we're pretty used to being paying over the odds for foreign tech, but this - and for the veiled denials by way of the statement that official pricing has not yet been disclosed, it's as likely truth as fabrication - this is just taking the piss.

In happier Apple news, a new iPhone iteration has been inadvertently revealed. Gizmodo have the specs and such here. The story of how they came into possession of the 4G model makes for vastly more interesting reading, however. You can read all about it here - needless to say, German ale is largely to blame - though I'd stress that this isn't completely honest reporting: the Giz paid the big bucks to get their hands on this new iPhone, and they gloss over that part of the story entirely; though every other detail, it seems, is fair game. Hmmm.

But enough of all the iNews!

Roget Ebert, noted film critic, has once again been enflaming the debate over whether video games can ever be considered art. Note that I say "film critic" rather than "art critic." The man knows his stuff, and he makes several fine points, but in the making misses the pivotal point entirely. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, art is - in all its forms - an entirely subjective entity, and Ebert allows no room for interpretation. And it is in the interpretation, surely, that a thing becomes art. I might turn up my nose at Damien Hirst or some other modernist nonsense filthing up gallery walls, but I wouldn't for a second deny other people their own readings. Ebert, on the other hand, seems perfectly content that his opinion - that "video games can never be art" - is THE opinion. It is not. He is mistaken. And he deigns, in his infinite wisdom, not to experience any of the various games that could challenge his misconception.

What he forgets, as Mr Shivers author Robert J. Bennett asserts in a considered rebuttal on his blog, is that though most video games are of course commercial products, the actual experience of them is not at all dictated by profit margins or executive interference. No two people play a single game in exactly the same way. The differences might be superficial, but their experiences are no less unique for the strict path some games insist their players take. And even if they were, no-one's taking film to task for being, in Bennett's terminology, a dead medium, static and utterly closed. Why should video games have to measure up to a difference standard? And come to that, why should commercial considerations be such a damning factor? Does cinema simply happen somehow, somewhere outside the real world?

It's all a bit ridiculous, really. Ebert is resolutely old guard and I don't expect his opinion to change any time soon, no matter how many times you show him Flower or Braid. He was right in one thing, at least: to have resisted stepping into this arena for so long. Nor would I welcome him back into it if he remains so unprepared to take the challenges put to him seriously. Of course video games are art - even the worst of them are, in much the same way as the likes of Transformers is to film: they are pop art. But their popularity does not exclude them from any other interpretation.

Since we're talking video games, a few related tidbits have broken this past week. Firstly, two voice actors have outed some of the villains we'll be seeing in Batman: Arkham Asylum 2, the inevitable sequel to perhaps the best game of last year. We'll be graced with some of the most interesting characters in the Batman mythology: Talia al Ghul, daughter of the great Ra's, and Mr Freeze, unfairly derided because of Arnold's campy portrayal in the movie which must not be named.

I'm psyched. The Arkham Asylum engine was incredibly strong, and Rocksteady clearly hold old Batsy near and dear to their hearts. I don't doubt they'll do these two characters justice. The interminable wait continues...

Meanwhile, all signs point to the next Silent Hill game being a first-person shooter. Not at all sure how I feel about that. This is a franchise I've loved since I was but an ickle Scotsman, and it's had a rough time - to say the least - since Team Silent, its original developers, moved on. And with the news of Akira Yamaoka's departure from Konami entirely, the last correlation between the Silent Hill of old and the Silent Hill we've seen in Origins and lately Shattered Memories is gone. I'll miss his wonderfully atmospheric soundtracks, I'm sure. Here's hoping Vatra can do something less destructive with their iteration of the franchise than giving some misbegotten fool a gun and setting them to massacre a horde of monsters.

But books. Remember those? Your Blogosphere Correspondent certainly hasn't forgotten about them. In that spirit, here's a lovely trailer for Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess' forthcoming Instructions:

Wasn't that lovely?

In other news, the shortlist for the Locus awards has been announced, and unlike the American Idol of speculative fiction ceremonies - ie the Hugos - these are awards I can get behind. And not least because they've nominated Jeff Vandermeer's brilliant Finch. Once again, however, I'm surprised to see Boneshaker in the running. Was I alone in thinking Cherie Priest's first Clockwork Century novel a bit of harmless fluff? In any case, if you want to know more, head on over to SF Signal, which has a handy list with links to all the nominated fiction available for free online.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Paulo Bacigalupi of The Windup Girl renown has joined forces with Tobias Buckell of... err, something else fame (sorry) to give us The Alchemist & The Executioness, an audio-book only - for now - pairing of novellas coming sometime this summer. The Yeti what stomps on stuff has all the tasty details. I'm in.

And now, news in briefs:

I know. It's rubbish, isn't it? Well, what can you do...
Philip Pullman, having just published The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, has taken his anti-religion vitriol a step further, calling for "the wretched Catholic church [to] vanish entirely." I do not love the church - not in principle, nor as it is - but I do not agree. Let us leave it at that.

The New Yorker has a fascinating write-up on the future of literary industry. Publish or Perish is here. Read it. Go on.

The Guardian, meanwhile, have taken note of the debate surrounding the David Gemmell Legend award. If you aren't all caught up on this engaging question, start reading here, with a piece on Speculative Horizons. Congrats to James - the recognition certainly isn't anything less than deserved!

Stephen's Lot is a new blog from the pen of Adam Christopher which I'd advise you all add to your RSS readers of choice as soon as humanly possible. Our opinions of Under the Dome rather diverge, but I'll be fascinated to follow Adam on his epic journey through King's backlist (in chronological order) and see if perhaps he comes around to my way of thinking once the gent has that base of knowledge behind him. It's not that I thought Under the Dome was a bad book at all - excepting perhaps the awful ending - but in many ways it was the same book, albeit bigger, that King has been writing for decades now.

Anyway. Last of all, Joss Whedon is apparently directing The Avengers movie for Marvel. Would that he could spend his talent on something more worthwhile, but I guess he has in the past, and look at all that effort has wrought. About time the man got a bit more recognition than cult status; he surely deserves it. Werthead has the story.
That's it From Your Blogosphere Correspondent this week. I'll be back to round up all of next week's news... next week!