Wednesday 30 June 2010

Halfway Through 2010: The Best Games

It's that time of year, I hear. Near enough the halfway point: the perfect opportunity to take stock of what 2010 has given us so far. What we should be grateful for, what travesties we wish we'd had the foresight to avoid. I'm going to run down my personal top five books, video games and movies - in that order - published or otherwise released between January 1st and June 30th. There'll also be a space for honourable mentions - as in, things I've loved that either came out before the period of eligibility began or else haven't yet hit shelves or home consoles or multiplexes - as well as worst disappointments, and any glaring oversights for each medium of entertainment.

So. We started with books, and yesterday we hit on movies. Today, it's the last stop on this celebration of the best stuff of the year to date. We're talking video games now. Those of you too proud or snooty or old to have a home console are off the hook - I won't hold it against you.

Well, not overly much.

Five Favourites

5. Just Cause 2
dev. Avalanche Studios

I'll get high and mighty myself in a minute, start in on some of the video games of 2010 that I'd assert have artistic merit, but allow me this one indulgence. I've had more fun - pure, unadulterated fun - playing Just Cause 2 than any other game this year. The story's a mess, the gameplay mechanics are notoriously janky, but the combination of a grappling hook and a parachute with a huge and beautiful world packed full of things to do and begging for exploration made Just Cause 2 an utter, and near-as-damnit unique pleasure. If you've overlooked this one because it looks a bit so-so, well, it is, but you won't have more fun with an average game than you will with this all year, guaranteed.

4. Metro 2033
dev. 4A Games

Based on the book by Dmitry Glukhovsky and developed in partnership with the self-safe Russian author, Metro 2033 has to be the most overlooked game of 2010 so far. Sure, the frame rate is a bit shit, and the gunplay has nothing on your triple-A blockbusters, but in terms of narrative, atmosphere and otherness, few recent releases approach Metro 2033. From hammering round after round into some mutated horror to the mad dashes you'll make for filters for your gas mask, Metro 2033 is packed full of tension and moments of sheer terror. After this, the underground will never feel the same to you again.

3. Alan Wake
dev. Remedy

Vapourware, we all thought; those of us who've followed the video game industry for the last decade would have put good money on Alan Wake never happening. At least five years in development, it looked by all rights to be another Duke Nukem Forever. Thank the gods it wasn't. Alan Wake marks the successful return to the medium by the Swedish geniuses over at Remedy, and it takes after their last games - Max Payne and its unapologetically noirish sequel - in just the right ways. Stalking around Bright Falls with nothing but a flare gun and a torch is a brilliantly unnerving experience, and though Alan Wake perhaps overstays its welcome, you'll gladly twiddle your thumbs through the last chapters just to see how it all ends. Stephen King, eat your heart out.

2. Heavy Rain
dev. Quantic Dream

The through-line between Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain is clear as day, and as with their first game, Quantic Dream's hugely anticipated follow-up will leave plenty of gamers balking at the minimal interaction between player and player character. But Heavy Rain, in the end, is hardly a game: it's interactive cinema, a new thing entirely, and slap my arse and call me Sally, it works. This is a revolutionary murder mystery, a mature and moving testament to the power of video games. It could do with better writing and some voice actors that can actually speak English, but if the industry latches on to Heavy Rain's game engine, just think of the possibilities. This is a gateway game, the first step in a tradition that I can only hope lives long and prospers, at that. It'd have been my very favourite video game of the year so far, too, had it not been for...

1. Red Dead Redemption
dev. Rockstar San Diego

Now I had high hopes for Red Dead Redemption - any game from the makers of GTA will get my blood pumping - but this remarkable piece of work exceeded every one. You're John Marston, an outlaw come good, or trying to come good in the last days of the old West when the government kidnaps your wife and son with the aim of forcing you to hunt down the remainder of the band of miscreants you used to run with. John's story is a quiet tragedy, an exercise in subtlety I hadn't expected from the very gents who gave an immigrant a gun and had him go wild not a few years ago. I hundred-percented it, and I'm not that kind of gamer at all - I finished every mission, story-driven or side-quest; I captured every bounty; I hunted every animal; I picked every plant. I did not want my time with Red Dead Redemption to end.

There are a lot of huge games set for release later in the year, and I'd be daft to call it without experiencing any of them first hand, but Red Dead Redemption was an experience and a half, the only game of its ouvre to truly succeed. Without a doubt my game of the year - so far.

Also, the musculature on those horses was incredible. It's all in the details, people. Details.

Runners Up

Button-mashing fun with Greek gods to beat on, basically. Fun, for sure; exactly the same sort of fun we've all had with these character action games in the past, however, if incrementally prettier and more polished (review). Not how I'd have liked to see such a stalwart franchise go out, but then, that'd be to presume that the third game in the God of War trilogy truly is that last. As if.

Honourable Mentions

I have a right soft spot for Silent Hill, and so many memories. Playing the first one into the night in the loft of my parents' house with an old friend; Silent Hill 2 haunting my dreams for weeks; bonding with the other half over a shared love of the old games; generally having the beejebus scared out of me on a regular basic. Resident Evil is fun and all, but it has nothing on Silent Hill. Sadly, the series rather went to the dogs after the original studio dissolved and development duties were handed over to a series of Western studios. The latest of that lineage, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, wasn't perfect by a long stretch - for one thing, it's on the Wii - but it did something different with a series close to my heart I'd thought exhausted. It gave me hope, and that's something. It also gave me a scarily accurate psychological profile of myself...

Worst Disappointments

Perhaps in this case, "worst disappointments" isn't exactly right. Bioshock 2 and Final Fantasy XIII aren't bad games at all, but neither captured the spirit of the franchises they spawned from. The slog through the first 25 hours of Final Fantasy XIII taught me that I might be over RPGs; a return trip to Rapture, the setting of perhaps my favourite game ever, just couldn't capture the same sense of wonder as the original did, despite being more technically accomplished and telling a fine, if somewhat awkwardly stitched-in tale. Sad but true.

Glaring Oversights

This I got as a birthday present, back in March, and I've been saving it for myself ever since. I loved Mass Effect, dodgy bits and all; I loved the story, the characters, the choice, the music. And by all rights, Mass Effect 2 improves on the original in every which way - or at least, so I'm told. Give me 50 hours to do the sequel justice and I'll gladly give up sleeping to immerse myself in this world all over again. Sadly, 50 hours haven't been forthcoming in 2010 so far. Here's hoping I'll find the time sometime soon.

Final Thoughts

Those of us who've been gaming since the dawn of time expect very little of note to be forthcoming from the industry outside of the rush of games released over the holidays. Thanks to Crackdown, I think - sequel soon! - that's changed. Year on year, the first half of the year has become more and more important. I for one can't think of a busier gaming Spring ever: developers finally getting to grips with the current generation of consoles have given us one blockbuster after another. It's been a tremendous time to be a gamer. The drought, I think, is over, and here's to that.

So, those of you out there will a console to call your own: what have your favourite games of the year been? Anyone else out there 100% Red Dead Redemption?

Tuesday 29 June 2010

Halfway Through 2010: The Best Movies

It's that time of year, I hear. Near enough the halfway point: the perfect opportunity to take stock of what 2010 has given us so far. What we should be grateful for, what travesties we wish we'd had the foresight to avoid. I'm going to run down my personal top five books, video games and movies - in that order - published or otherwise released between January 1st and June 30th. There'll also be a space for honourable mentions - as in, things I've loved that either came out before the period of eligibility began or else haven't yet hit shelves or home consoles or multiplexes - as well as worst disappointments, and any glaring oversights for each medium of entertainment.

Yesterday, we kicked things off with my favourite books of the year to date. Today, we're talking movies. You know: moving pictures. Sometimes based on books! They've gotten to be quite a trend, of late.


Five Favourites

5. Kick-Ass
dir. Matthew Vaughn

Now I had problems with Kick-Ass. I caught a bit of flack for my issues with the latest collaboration between Stardust's writer/director team, in fact, but however uneven its narrative felt, however schizophrenic its tone, there was a lot to love about Matthew Vaugn and Jane Goldman's self-aware superhero satire. In particular, Hit-Girl and her dad - Nic bloody Cage, believe it or not, in his best role since the good old days. A movie with real heart.

4. Cracks
dir. Jordan Scott

Bond girl Eva Green is Miss G, the swimming teacher who sets the cat amongst the pigeons in Cracks. A story of jealousy running rampant among the girls of an elite British boarding school in the mode of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Jordan Scott's directorial debut immediately places her above her father, Ridley Scott, in the talent stakes, and certainly her uncle Tony. The sexual tension is unbearable despite the absence of any explicit scenes, the performances are powerful and the composition is pitch-perfect. Look out for a full review of Cracks in the near future.

3. Ondine
dir. Neal Jordan

Another somewhat flawed film here - the last act somewhat shatters the moody seaside idyll Ondine works so hard to achieve - but a wonderful watch nevertheless, honest and dreamy and beautiful. From its haunting score to its muted aesthetic, Neal Jordan's latest, a selkie fable set in a left-behind fishing village in Ireland, stands shoulder to shoulder with his greatest. And newcomer Allison Barry is a joy to watch as Colin Farrell's brave, disabled daughter. Did I mention that in my review?

2. micMacs
dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Should have a review of this one up in the not-too-distant. In the meantime, I'll say that the latest from Jean-Pierre Jeunet doesn't quite live up to the innocent wonder of Amelie, but it easily exceeds Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children and A Very Long Engagement. Basically it's brilliant. Tight, colourful and visually stunning, micMacs is the greatest farce in recent memory, and a reminder of what cinema can be when those who create it aren't overburdened by the misguided notion that all good film is deathly serious and abominably clever. Which isn't to say micMacs is lacking in the smarts department, nor is it short a few serious moments; the palette of Jeunet's latest is just more expansive than that. A real treat.

1. Shutter Island
dir. Martin Scorsese

At last, Leonardo DiCaprio has grown up! Martin Scorsese has given him chance after chance, and though all of the films the pair have made together have been worth watching, Shutter Island, based on the book by Dennis Lehane, has to be the highlight of them - surpassing even The Departed, and certainly boasting a more mature performance from its unfortunately baby-faced leading man. A real mindfuck of a movie. You might see the twist coming, but you won't be able to fathom its repercussions. And the end... simply sublime.

Runners Up

I didn't used to hate Johnny Depp. Not that he's in The Book of Eli, but he starred in the Hughes brothers' last film, From Hell, and I kind of liked From Hell. Perhaps it was the Alan Moore connection, or Daddy Borrower as the big bad, but I had fun. The case with The Book of Eli is much the same. Denzel Washington does his usual - pleasant and mildly commanding - Gary Oldman is excellent as always, and the Hughes brothers bring it in terms of style and panache. Not hugely memorable - except the dreadfully predictable twist - but a good time nonetheless.

Honourable Mentions

The Road isn't quite up to snuff when you compare it with the ubiquitous book on which it's based, but with this bleak, washed-out post-apocalyptic tale of survival against all the odds, the director of The Proposition again shows himself capable of bringing out the best in the worst. Viggo Mortensen equips himself well at the man, but he's outdone but some stellar supporting actors, and undone, ultimately, by the boy's uneven performance. Still, a fine film, and a far more faithful adaptation than I'd imagined (review).

Worst Disappointments

Daybreakers starts brilliantly, stylish and promising, before descending immediately into B-grade territory - a real waste (review). Alice in Wonderland, on the other hand, disappointed me more, I think, because as ever with new Tim Burton films, I'd such high hopes. Short of the lovely Mia Wasikowski as Alice, however, his latest was very much in the mode of the forgettable, if visually impressive movies he's been making for the last decade, and that's just not what I want from Tim Burton, damn it. At least it wasn't a straight-up retelling of the old story; there's that.

Glaring Oversights

A word of explanation: I'm not really the cinema sort. I've got a big old HDTV and a great surround sound system, so movies have to be something special for me to make the effort to take to the multiplex rather than hold out for home cinema experience, and neither of these were - though they each intrigue me for different reasons. Is Iron Man 2 truly the mess of potential so many critics have asserted? And how did The Wolfman fare, ultimately, after such a troubled production?

I guess we'll see when LoveFilm lets me rent the DVDs...

Final Thoughts

All told, I haven't watched nearly enough movies this year. I don't know that it's been slim pickings per se, or if my focus has simply been elsewhere in the time I'd otherwise have spent in front of the telly. You can only do so much with so much free time, at the end of the day, and I've spent it reading. Or, um... playing Red Dead Redemption. More on which tomorrow.

Meantime, what have a few of your favourite movies of the year been? Anyone out there want to heckle me for hating on Alice in Wonderland, or preach the salvation of the second Iron Man? Talk to me, guys.

Monday 28 June 2010

Halfway Through 2010: The Best Books

It's that time of year, I hear. Near enough the halfway point: the perfect opportunity to take stock of what 2010 has given us so far. What we should be grateful for, what travesties we wish we'd had the foresight to avoid. I'm going to run down my personal top five books, video games and movies - in that order - published or otherwise released between January 1st and June 30th. There'll also be a space for honourable mentions - as in, things I've loved that either came out before the period of eligibility began or else haven't yet hit shelves or home consoles or multiplexes - as well as worst disappointments, and any glaring oversights for each medium of entertainment.

Let's begin with... books.

Five Favourites

5. Horns
by Joe Hill

I loved Heart-Shaped Box. I know it had its detractors, but what with the hot goth girls, the eBay shenanigans and a healthy serving of good, old-school horror, it felt like Joe Hill's debut spoke directly to me - which probably says a lot more about me than I'd ever volunteer. Accordingly, I was expecting great things from his second novel, and Horns did not disappoint. A more comic narrative by half, wherein an infamous local celebrity inexplicably wakes up one morning with horns that make everyone he speaks to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, Horns nevertheless had a surprisingly emotional denouement. If my belief that Hill is a better writer than his father by a generous margin needed reaffirming, this would have done the trick.

4. Stories
edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

This incredible collection came out of nowhere for me. Just about the first thing I heard of it was the sound of an early manuscript slapping the laminate beneath my letterbox. After a quick look at the list of contributors, however, it was only through sheer force of will that I managed to resist a bad habit of mine: saving great books to savour at a later date. But then, one night, I read the wonderfully wicked 'Blood' by Roddy Doyle to the other half as she was falling asleep, and I was hooked. A few days later, after powerhouses from Neil Gaiman, Gene Wolfe, Joe Hill, Jonathan Carroll, I finally came up for air. Truly an anthology for the ages. 

3. Kraken
by China Mieville

The last thing I'd expected from this year's new China Mieville was a comedy. But then, since he rounded off the Bas-Lag trilogy with Iron Council, Mieville's been all about defying expectations, and books like Kraken - demented, betentacled hijinx in and around the aspect of London we mere mortals can't see - make me glad he hasn't just returned to New Crubozon over and over ad infinitum. Between an early manuscript of this courtesy of Macmillan and a postcard from the man himself to say how chuffed he was with my review, my experiences with Kraken, all told, are among the best I've had since launching The Speculative Scotsman. Which isn't to say it's not a damn fine book; it is, though I suspect its tone might mean the high and mighty judges will overlook it come awards season next year. 

2. Mr Shivers
by Robert Jackson Bennett

Mr Shivers caught me entirely by surprise. I'd never heard of Robert Jackson Bennett, and though the buzz on his debut was good, in general, it didn't seem to be making huge waves. Truly, it should have: this is a stonker of a novel. Bleak and hopeless in the mode of The Road, painterly and mythic, spare and powerful. From cover to cover, this was an experience the likes of which reminds me why I fell for genre literature in the first place. If you haven't read it - and I fear a very few of you have - and you're only prepared to let me recommend one book to you, this is it. Go on, now. Buy. Devour. And come on back when you're done, let me have the pleasure of telling you I told you so. 

1. The Passage
by Justin Cronin

It seems like a bit of a cheat to pick The Passage as my favourite book of 2010 given that I haven't reviewed it yet, but never fear: there's a review in the works, and a whole week of themed celebrations in the pipeline to go along with it. I don't want to step on my forthcoming review's toes by giving too much away, but this, shall we say, is that rarest of things: a book that not only meets but exceeds the hype. And The Passage is the single most hyped book of the year. It's that good.

Runners Up

Any other year, I suspect both of these fantastic fantasies would have placed in the top five. In Spellwright, a stellar debut from Blake Charlton: Harry Potter with charm, smarts, originality and a magic system worth ten of most others (review). In City of Ruin, a sequel to Nights of Villjamur that improves on its excellent predecessor in nearly every imaginable sense (review). Alas, there are only five spots to be had, so. Sorry lads!

Honourable Mentions

Two books from last year, here, but both likely candidates for the best of 2009 honours here on The Speculative Scotsman - had The Speculative Scotsman existed, that is, in 2009. In Great Waters is a tale of mermaid politics that far exceeds its odd lede line thanks to its tragic characters (review), while Far North... well, you'll be hearing all about Far North shortly.

Worst Disappointments

I won't waste another word iterating how awful this overhyped abomination truly is (review).

Glaring Oversights

Poor Voyager. Two of their biggest releases this calendar year and I've hardly covered either. Not for want of trying, nor, indeed, for any lack of anticipation - both are books I've lusted after for ages - but now that they're upon us, one thing or another has come up every time I've tried to sit down with Under Heaven or The Desert Spear, and so they've languished on the tottering stack of books To Be Read. They shall be, though; read, I mean, and before the year's out. In the meantime, I'm sure we can all agree: I am made of fail.

Final Thoughts

It's been a hell of year so far, hasn't it? Honestly, it's been a bit of a struggle to find five movies and five games for the Halfway Through 2010 posts scheduled for tomorrow and the next that I honestly feel are worthy of such championing - perhaps because of the historical drought affecting those mediums until Summer and the holidays respectively - but in terms of literature, a shortage of quality genre fiction is the least of my worries.

I wonder, though, if I'm overstating the case somewhat. Perhaps most years are like this, and I'm only now noticing the breadth and depth of speculative fiction as a whole because the blog has meant I've had to pay close attention to it. So do tell, readers dear: am I miles off base here, or has it been half a year to remember? What have your favourite books of the year been?

Sunday 27 June 2010

The BoSS for 27/06/10

Bit of a quiet week, this. A couple of the books that have come along look interesting, no doubt about it - namely the Pierre Pevel and the Charlie Stross - but each are sequels to series I haven't read before, which is a real a shame. I expect both authors would be very much to my liking, but I'm a stickler for starting series at the start, and at the moment I simply don't have the time or the means to do so. As is, I'm left looking forward to Wrymeweald: Returner's Wealth above all of this week's proofs, a western YA fantasy I believe I cottoned onto after Mark Chitty of Walker of Worlds posted about it. Holding you accountable, mate, if it's rubbish!

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.


The Alchemist in the Shadows
by Pierre Pevel

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
16/09/10 by Gollancz

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "Welcome to Paris, in 1633, where dragons menace the realm. Cardinal Richelieu, the most powerful and most feared man in France, is on his guard. He knows France is under threat, and that a secret society known as the Black Claw is conspiring against him from the heart of the greatest courts in Europe. They will strike from the shadows, and when they do the blow will be both terrible and deadly. To counter the threat, Richelieu has put his most trusted men into play: the Cardinal's Blades, led by Captain la Fargue. Six men and a woman, all of exceptional abilities and all ready to risk their lives on his command. They have saved France before, and the Cardinal is relying on them to do it again. So when la Fargue hears from a beautiful, infamous, deadly Italian spy claiming to have valuable information, he has to listen... and when La Donna demands Cardinal Richelieu's protection before she will talk, la Fargue is even prepared to consider it. Because La Donna can name their enemy. It's a man as elusive as he is manipulative, as subtle as Richelieu himself, an exceptionally dangerous adversary: the Alchemist in the shadows."

Commentary: Historical swashbuckling, then? This sounds like a great deal of fun, and I understand the first book in the series, The Cardinal's Blades, made it onto the David Gemmell Legend award shortlist, so it's got to be of decent quality, too - though the minibio description of Pierre Pevel as "one of the foremost writers of French fantasy today" rather baffles me. I mean, who else is there? In any event, unless a copy of The Cardinal's Blades conveniently materialises, I'm afraid I probably won't be reading The Alchemist in the Shadows. Just don't have the time. Would that I did...

Black Blade Blues
by J. A. Pitts

Release Details:
Published in the US on
27/04/10 by Tor

Review Priority:
2 (Fair)

Plot Synopsis: "Sarah Beauhall has more on her plate than most twenty-somethings: day job as a blacksmith, night job as a props manager for low-budget movies, and her free time is spent fighting in a medieval re-enactment group.

"The lead actor breaks Sarah's favorite one-of-a-kind sword, and to avoid reshooting scenes, Sarah agrees to repair the blade. One of the extras, who claims to be a dwarf, offers to help. And that’s when things start to get weird. Could the sword really be magic, as the 'dwarf' claims? Are dragons really living among us as shapeshifters?

"And as if things weren’t surreal enough, Sarah's girlfriend Katie breaks out the dreaded phrase... 'I love you.' As her life begins to fall apart, first her relationship with Katie, then her job at the movie studio, and finally her blacksmithing career, Sarah hits rock bottom. It is at this moment, when she has lost everything she has prized, that one of the dragons makes their move.

"And suddenly what was unthinkable becomes all too real... and Sarah will have to decide if she can reject what is safe and become the heroine who is needed to save her world."

Commentary: Renaissance party urban fantasy? Really?

I'm a sucker for a good bit of alliteration, but that's the only props I'm giving this book - sorry. I suppose the reviews over on make it sounds like a lark, but between the plot synopsis, the genre and that ghastly cover, it's fairly safe to say I won't likely be reading Black Blade Blues any time soon. Not quite my cup of tea.

The Day of the Jack Russell
by Bateman

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

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "The Small Shop Keeper With No Name is back. Hired to find the vandals responsible for spraying graffiti on an airline mogul's advertising hoarding, he soon finds himself up to his ears in intrigue and battling to solve murders which echo in the corridors of power. With MI5 getting involved and everyone on the hunt for a missing Jack Russell, can Our Man Behind the Counter stay alive as well as keep his world renowned but criminally ignored No Alibis mystery bookshop afloat?"

Commentary: This Bateman fellow's been a bit of a crime fiction sensation here in the UK, and hearing The Day of the Jack Russell described as - and I quote - "Black Books meets Lead Balloon meets Gavin and Stacey" certainly appeals to my characteristically miserable British sense of humour. Wouldn't you know it, though, it's the second book in a series. The follow-up to Mystery Man, specifically, but serial fiction in this genre tends to be more self-contained than in science-fiction and fantasy, so who's to say? I might give this one a shot.

Wyrmweald: Returner's Wealth
by Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
29/04/10 by Doubleday

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "Young pioneer, Micah, enters Wrymeweald full of hope to return home having made his fortune. But this is a land where wyrmes, fabulous dragon-like beasts, roam wild and reign supreme. In Wyrmeweald man is both hunter and hunted - and seventeen-year-old Micah may never return alive, let alone a hero...After a near-brush with death on the edge of a canyon, Micah soon finds a chance to prove his worth when he meets with Eli, a veteran tracker of Wrymeweald. They choose to defend a rare whitewyrme egg and its precious hatchling before it falls into the hands of a band of evil Kith.

"But the fledgling wyrme has its own guardian in the shape of the beautiful, brave and dangerous Thrace. Thrace, a Kin and a highly-skilled wyrme rider-assassin; and Micah, a would-be Kith, should never mix - but the magnetism between them is strong. Together they join forces on a mission to rescue the hatchling and seek vengeance for loved-ones lost at the hand of Kith bandits. Meanwhile the glorious whitewyrme colony of Wyrmeweald looks on as its land is encroached by gold-diggers and ravaged by bounty hunters. Is Exodus the only option? And if so, when - and where - will they flee too?"

Commentary: As I said in the intro, I came across this one courtesy of the lovely trailer Mark posted over at his blog - it's fantasy for young adults, but hella good sounding. Now that I actually have Wyrmeweald: Returner's Wealth in my hands, I can say it's a beautiful book, too: lavishly illustrated throughout. I'm not at all sure about Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, but according to the the other books by bit inside the dustjacket, between them they've published enough to have Stephen King in a cold sweat. You think after sinking 50 hours into Red Dead Redemption I'd be good and done with westerns. You'd think; you'd be mistaken, mind. Good and up for this one.

The Ragged Man
by Tom Lloyd

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
19/08/10 by Gollancz

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "The Lord Isak is dead, his armies and entire tribe in disarray. It falls to King Emin to continue the war alone, and the Menin are only too happy to meet his challenge. In Byora, Ruhen is developing his 'Saviour' persona. The Harlequins start preaching in his name and many of the pilgrims who flock to him are recruited to be 'Children', disciples who spread Ruhen's message. All over the Land people are starting to see Ruhen as the answer to their troubles. A showdown is coming: battle lines are finally drawn and the atrocities quickly mount. The spectre of the Great War looms, but in this age the Gods cannot and will not come to King Emin's aid. With the peoples of the Land turning against Emin and his few remaining allies, their only chance for survival lies in the hands of a dead man."

Commentary: The Ragged Man is the fourth volume of a series that began with The Stormcaller. This is what I have learned. You know, I'm sure these books are fine, but nothing about them grabs me. In fact, I saw what I think was book two in a charity shops a few months ago, selling for buttons, and I didn't buy it then. But good luck to Tom. Maybe when he writes something that isn't part something of whatever, I'll give the guy the old college try.

The Fuller Memorandum
by Charles Stross

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
01/07/10 by Orbit

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "Bob Howard is an IT specialist and field agent for the Laundry, the branch of Her Majesty's secret service that deals with occult threats. Overworked and underpaid, Bob is used to his two jobs overflowing from a strict nine to five and, since his wife Mo has a very similar job description, he understands that work will sometimes follow her home, too. But when 'work' involves zombie assassins and minions of a mad god's cult, he realises things are spinning out of control. When a top-secret dossier goes missing and his boss Angleton is implicated, Bob must contend with suspiciously helpful Russian intelligence operatives and an unscrupulous apocalyptic cult before confronting the decades-old secret that lies at the heart of the Laundry: what is so important about the missing Fuller Memorandum? And why are all the people who know dying?"

Commentary: There's been a lot of meh this week, hasn't there? Well, let there be an end to that. I'm certainly not meh about The Fuller Memorandum. I've heard and read a few of Charles Stross' short stories, and enjoyed them a great deal - but I've never read one of the man's actual novels. This'd be a fine place to start, if only it were the start of The Laundry. As is, it's book three, following The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue, and I find myself stymied yet again. That is unless anyone out there spares a few seconds to speak to how standalone these books are. I really would like to give it a go...

The Levels
by Sean Cregan

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
05/08/10 by Headline

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "On the outskirts of Newport, on the US East Coast, lies an abandoned housing project: the Levels. Inhabited by Newport's homeless population, the Levels are run by the all-powerful Sorrow.

"Ex-CIA agent Nate Turner, who is in the Levels to find out who has just tried to kill him, meets a 14-year-old girl Ghost. Ghost is a Fury, one of Sorrow's trained, teenage assassins looking for a way back to her normal life.

"Also in the Levels is Kate, a suspended cop, who has been told that she has only days to live after being attacked, and infected, by the Beast, a serial killer working the streets. The Beast is out for revenge on Kate's new employer, who he believes created the infection that's killing him, an infection that has also been released into the Levels.

"Now Ghost is trying to escape Sorrow, Kate is looking for the Beast and Turner is looking for answers. One thing's for sure, some people aren't going to survive the fallout..."

Commentary: Why does every author need a pseudonym for when they're writing genre fiction? I'm offended. But I'm going to put my feelings to one side for the good of humanity. First things first: The Levels isn't by Sean Cregan at all. It's by John Rickards, who made big waves with his crime thriller debut, Winter's End. This is much in the same vein, I suspect. Its genre trappings aren't immediately apparent, but they're there, I'm assured. Pretty sure I'll be giving The Levels a good going-over within the next month with an aim to getting a review up before its publication date. Here's hoping the Beast doesn't get me while I'm hobnobbing with the hobos!

Friday 25 June 2010

Never Let Me Go Hunting for Trailers

Just a quick one for you all today. Quick, but utterly worth the two minutes it'll take you to watch. Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2010, I give you the trailer for the hugely promising adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's deceptively speculative powerhouse of a novel, Never Let Me Go.

Bit of a spoiler here, so avert your eyes if you don't want to know it is about this apparently unassuming film that makes it of interest to genre fans...

Carey Mulligan? Andrew Garfield? Keira Knightley? They're all clones, people. Clones.

Never Let Me Go is a hell of a book, people. And with a cast like that, a screenplay by Alex Garland based on the highest caliber source material I can imagine, and Mark Romanek of One Hour Photo in the big chair, this is one to watch.

In fact, I'm going to call it right now. If audiences can get past the sci-fi angle, or indeed if the producers are smart enough to squirrel it away during the publicity blitz that'll precede the release of Never Let Me Go, it'll be this year's Atonement, easily, and a shoe-in for Best Picture contention at next year's Academy Awards.

If you haven't already, read the book while you still can! It really is all that.

Thursday 24 June 2010

Book Review: Walking the Tree by Kaaron Warren

"Botanica is the island, but all of Botanica is taken up by the Tree.

"Lillah has come of age. She is now ready to leave her community and walk around the Tree for five years, learning all that Botanica has to teach her. Before setting off, Lillah is begged by the dying mother of a young boy to take him with her. But if anyone suspects he carries the disease himself, he and Lillah will be killed."


It would be doing Walking the Tree a disservice to say, as I imagine many critics may, that it is a novel about what it is to be a woman. Criminally underappreciated Australian author Kaaron Warren certainly has much to say about the concept of femininity as we understand it, but her thematic concerns are substantially more diverse than that reductive description allows for. Walking the Tree is, firstly, a novel about discovery; about community, truth and history, amongst other things. Its concerns range far and wide, and though gender is among them, threaded finely through a narrative that takes place over the course of nearly a decade in the life of Lillah, who leaves her village a girl and returns an adult, the notion never overbears on the darkly fantastic tale Warren has to tell.

Botanica is a beautifully realised setting: an island dominated by a great tree, the circumference of which takes five years to traverse and around whose roots various Orders have sprung up. Every one of these communities in microcosm is unique; each produces a different thing, be it Jasmine-scented perfume, pottery or morning-after moss; each has its own array of fears and beliefs, each its own, individual story to tell; each reacts differently to Lillah and the school of children she and her fellow teachers accompany on their mind-widening pilgrimage around the tree. As they come to grasp the myriad differences between their home in Ombu and the handful of other Orders, so too do we.

The further Lillah progresses in her journey, the greater the reader's understanding of Botanica becomes; spread before us, as it is before her, lies the island in all its glory - and all its horror. For not all of the Orders dotted around the outer rim of Botanica are as welcoming to teachers and their schools as the people of Ombu. Among the communities there are those that clearly despise the intrusion, though while some only tolerate the tradition, others revel in it. In one Order, Lillah and her class of innocents are met with ceremony and reverence; in another, the resentment only relents to make room for the advances of lecherous men.

In terms of storytelling, Walking the Tree is a fairly straightforward read, but Warren's almost detached tone belies a startling blackness at the heart of her narrative. Lillah encounters the best of Botanica during her pilgrimage, but she must also face up to the worst. There is sickening brutality throughout: rape, intimidation, sheer, stark terror and tragedy. When leaffall claims the life of one teacher, the others exchange glances which say "We are glad it isn't one of us. This wasn't a good teacher. She did not deserve to die, but we are glad it is her and not one of us," and such bittersweet insight, such honesty, is commonplace throughout Warren's revelatory second novel. Her matter-of-fact voice communicates the tale's darker turns as effectively as it does the rare interludes of light.

Beyond a disarmingly frank desire to experience intercourse for the first time - for in Botanica, woman cannot couple with men from their own community - Lillah begins her journey in the abstract, but her pilgrimage soon becomes deeply personal. In one Order she picks up the trail of her absent mother; in another, far-fetched tales of her father's brother spark her imagination; and always, Marcus is with her: Marcus, a child who may or may not carry a sickness that could decimate the island's already-sparse populace.

Unbidden, Lillah's journey begins to affect her, and us, in turn. As her sibling observes, "we are all changed by even the smallest experience. We cannot stay the same no matter how hard we try," and as Lillah's trip around the tree becomes more emotional, the reader's stakes are engendered so that when she and her charges are imperiled, our sympathies are with them. But neither Warren nor her protagonist cast judgment on the other cultures, not even the most awful of them: Walking the Tree is progressive in many ways, but it treads lightly, respectful always, and for its restraint, the narrative is all the more successful.

Walking the Tree is an unpretentious, eye-opening experience. Dark but never dim, Karron Warren's first novel since she documented the psyche of a serial killer in her debut Slights is an insightful, earthy chronicle of diversity and understandings arrived at and remade. Hers is a voice that demands to be heard, and I don't doubt that this marvelous fable represents only the root of her talents.


Walking the Tree
by Kaaron Warren
February 2010, Angry Robot

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