Friday 30 July 2010

Letter to Guillermo

Oh, Guillermo del Toro... we're all a bit disappointed you're not directing The Hobbit.

Now don't go getting all uppity, del Toro my man - we're not unsympathetic. It would have required a tremendous time commitment, six years of your life last I heard, and even that's presuming all this red tape holding production up ends up as expected. I'll miss the iconic lion roaring in films on Sunday afternoon, absolutely, but please, MGM, get out of the way; there are movies to be made. Movies with tiny little hairy-toed people and dragons and Smeagols, mostly.

Anyway, Guilly - you don't mind, do you? - there's all that nonsense, six years is of course a huge ask, and no doubt innumerable other factors played into your decision to give up on The Hobbit.


Well, it's still a bit disappointing. I mean, you've dropped what could very well be the best fantasy film (films, I should say - though the less said about that the better) since The Return of the King... and to do what? Head up an eyes-on-the-prize cash-in take on The Haunted Mansion ride for the Mouse House? Bah. I can hardly believe it's true. If you won't make The Hobbit, well, whatever. Maybe Peter Jackson will do it after all - maybe we could all win. But this is what you're doing with all that talent, all that imagination?

No. Go and make The Devil's Thighbone or Rhyn's Labyrinth or something. Come on, man. I can hardly think of anything less worthwhile than another franchise hoping to rival the success of Pirates of the Carribean.

Wait, what was that?

Well, hell. You're making a video game, too? Guilly! My friend! Couldn't you have told me that before I tore into you?

For those of you haven't heard, Guillermo del Toro just announced - at SDCC, if I'm not mistaken - that he's going to be lending his talents to the world of video games. We haven't the juicy details yet, but by the sounds of it, this isn't going to be some hack character action game with nothing more to do with the man beyond a fantasy twist and his name on the box. Del Toro made that pretty clear in a statement to MTV:

"We're going to do games that are going to be technically and narratively very interesting. It's not a development deal. We're going to do it. We're doing them. And we're going to announce it soon enough."

This from a man who, in the past, has confessed his love for Bioshock, GTA IV and the Silent Hill series - masters of the medium, each and every one. I'd substitute Red Dead Redemption for the last Grand Theft Auto, but otherwise, yes. I mean, exactly. Del Toro is even on record as saying:

"There are only two games I consider masterpieces. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus."

Damn straight, del Toro. The man knows a good video game from a bad one, and moreover, he can evidently tell a truly great one from a passable piece of entertainment.

In short, we have the technology, and by gum, we can - we will - rebuild him!

So I suppose it's all a wash, in the end. It's a bit rubbish that you aren't directing The Hobbit, Guillermo, but if you can come up with a video game half as good as any of those you've namechecked in the past, I'll consider your unfortunate absence from that project a gift unto a medium that means the world to me - and a medium that sorely needs the presence of auteurs such as yourself. Saying that, perhaps we have a better result than no goals scored. Maybe... maybe this was the right move. Good man.

Seriously though: don't let me hear you're making another bloody Hellboy, alright?

Thursday 29 July 2010

Book Review: The Restoration Game by Ken Macleod

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"There is no such place as Krassnia. Lucy Stone should know - she was born there. In that tiny, troubled region of the former Soviet Union, revolution is brewing. Its organisers need a safe place to meet, and where better than the virtual spaces of an online game? Lucy, who works for a start-up games company in Edinburgh, has a project that almost seems made for the job: a game inspired by The Krassniad, an epic folk tale concocted by Lucy's mother Amanda, who studied there in the 1980s. Lucy knows Amanda is a spook. She knows her great-grandmother Eugenie also visited the country in the '30s, and met the man who originally collected Krassnian folklore, and who perished in Stalin's terror. As Lucy digs up details about her birthplace to slot into the game, she finds the open secrets of her family's past, the darker secrets of Krassnia's past - and hints about the crucial role she is destined to play in The Restoration Game..."


A new book by Ken Macleod is invariably something to get excited about - few writers are confident enough to set their speculative fiction so close to home as the Scottish author is wont to - and the Stornoway-born, Edinburgh-based author who made waves with the Fall Revolution quartet more than a decade ago has certainly been keeping us on our toes of late. As with The Execution Channel and BSFA award-winner The Night Sessions, his latest, The Restoration Game, is standalone science-fiction set in a place and an era not dissimilar to our own. This time, same as the last time, the action begins (after a few false starts in Mars and New Zealand, that is) in an Edinburgh as near-as-dammit to our own. It's the year 2008. Or else 2248, depending on who you ask.

Macleod makes the introductions easy: Lucy Stone was born and bred in Krassnia, a mostly insignificant (not to mention entirely fictional) satellite state of the defunct USSR, but left with her parents after a terrifying run-in with persons unknown in primary school. Lucy's landed on her feet since coming to Scotland. She shares a flat with a few friends, earns her keep writing and programming in the erstwhile for a small-time video game studio in the city, and in sometime sheer-shearer Alexander Hamilton, she's got a boyfriend that makes it all go away. "Alec had been for me an idea of escape. He'd know nothing, nothing at all, of my other life," except that since Lucy's spook of a mother - agent Amanda Stone, CIA, you will never hear her intone - approached Digital Damage Productions to co-opt their forthcoming MMORPG as a platform for revolution in Krassnia, Alec's blissful ignorance has become a slippery slope indeed. Lucy's gone-but-hardly-forgotten past, including though not limited to what she calls "The Scariest Day of My Life," has come back to haunt her. Soon enough, she'll be negotiating with Russian spies at border posts, and scribbling coded messages on the walls of "a privy at the back of the Inn of Unrighteousness." Lucy's life is changing. The question is: can she keep the pace?

She can. And so does Ken Macleod. It speaks volumes of his confident authorial hold on the structural demands of The Restoration Game's deeply involved political narrative - and of his power as a writer in general - to say that even during the down-time, of which there's rather a lot, Macleod rarely lets his latest flag. Action, however distant it might be in actuality, always feels immediate; the final solutions to myriad intrigues are just a single reveal away, you can but believe.

Macleod veils his infodumps well. There's always a narrative justification for us to learn about those things he means to teach - and understand that The Restoration Game is not (except strictly speaking) so much science fiction as a potted fictional history of a left-over remnant of the USSR - but there are, I'm afraid, rather a lot of subjects to cover; significantly more, I would assert, than necessary, given the retrospective slightness of this book. What action and intrigue there is throughout The Restoration Game rarely fails to satisfy, and yet, when all is said and done, the actual narrative seems lightweight compared to the some might say overcomplicated back-story.

As a matter of fact, there are other aspects of The Restoration Game that Macleod can't quite pull off. The video games connection feels entirely tangential, which is a shame: it's pivotal in terms of the plot, and Macleod's done the subject justice before. Here, however, it's only seems to count when it's useful, and one could say the same about the city The Restoration Game is largely set it. No, not Krasnod - Krassnia and its post-collapse capital are stark, evocative places in which to set Lucy's subterfuge, but at least an equal part of the action takes place in Edinburgh; a place close to my heart (not to mention my hearth), and presumably Macleod's too. Yet all we get are contextless street names and addresses. The author and I can probably picture them perfectly, but who else will be able to say that? For readers who haven't spent a few drunken summers at the Fringe festival or taken in the snow-capped castle at Christmas, Edinburgh as per The Restoration Game amounts to at best a charmless map scribbled in Biro.

Perhaps Macleod simply doesn't want to repeat himself. He's done wonders with Edinburgh and video games in the past - he boasts a wealth of personal experience of both - and here the place of each subject in the narrative might require him to retread old ground. Instead, he takes it as said. Hard-bitten Macleod devotees will be fine, if a little disappointed that such rich material has been subsumed, though I tend to suspect new readers might be a little lost.

I've spent a lot of time banging on about Edinburgh and video games - personal concerns of mine which won't necessarily be shared by other readers, I appreciate. Less subjectively, I've moaned a bit about an overabundance of infodumps and a comparatively slight measure of actual narrative. These are real problems, and this book is not the equal of Macleod's last few knock-outs because of them - I don't honestly see it receiving the now-expected nods from the judges overseeing the BSFA and Arthur C. Clarke awards. And yet The Restoration Game is of such unassailable quality otherwise that it still stands as a choice piece of speculative fiction. Macleod has given us a powerful story which, were it not for the likes of this author and a precious few of his contemporaries, simply wouldn't have been told. It's a fast-paced and deeply engaged political thriller with a neat sci-fi bent, brilliantly framed, characterised and plotted.

In short, even a lesser work by Ken Macleod is still a treat to read.


The Restoration Game
by Ken Macleod
July 2010, Orbit

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Wednesday 28 July 2010

Quoth The Crow, Nevermore

So they're remaking The Crow.

(Well, of course they are. It's a simple equation, really: they haven't yet, thus...)

How do I feel about this? Well, as of the latest round of news related to the remake's production, pretty damn fine - much, I should say, to my own astonishment. Because Nick Cave, the Bad Seed himself, has just been hired on to write the script, and that alone is assurance enough for me that we're looking at a better film than any of the execrable sequels that have kept the franchise ticking over this past decade.

Cave, for those of you who don't know, doesn't just spend his days growling God songs and murdering a young Kylie Minogue on Kerrang. He's also an accomplished author: alongside his debut, And the Ass Saw the Angel, he's published a collection of lyrics and plays and the acclaimed would-be John Hillcoat script, The Death of Bunny Munro - which, shame on me, I still have to read. What can I say? It's been a busy year, reading-wise.

In any case, Cave's also written a few scripts, and though the proposed sequel to Gladiator - said to close on "a 20-minute war sequence that ended up in Vietnam, and then in a toilet in the Pentagon, with [Crowe] as this rage-fueled eternal warrior" - didn't quite make it, The Proposition did, and what a film that was. Nick Cave can write: lyrics, poems, books and scripts. The hacks responsible for such travesties as The Crow: City of Angels, The Crow: Salvation and The Crow: Wicked Prayer - not so much.

I'm hardly gleeful at the prospect of yet another of my teenage touchstones being re-imagined for a new audience of naughties whippersnappers - apparently this time out Blade director Stephen Norrington is going for a "realistic, hard-edged and mysterious [movie], almost documentary-style" - but with Nick Cave on board, and bearing in mind the last three abominations to bear the name of The Crow, this is officially good news.

No news as yet who's going to be playing Eric Draven (I presume) so far, so let's all have a guess. Let's not confine ourselves to realistic possibilities here - just let fly with whomsoever you'd like to see carrying a blackbird on his (or indeed her) shoulder. For myself? One dude would make me particularly happy: give me Joseph Gordon Levitt!

What about you guys?

Monday 26 July 2010

Book Review: Blockade Billy by Stephen King

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"Even the most diehard baseball fans don't know the true story of William 'Blockade Billy' Blakely. He may have been the greatest player the game has ever seen, but today no one remembers his name. He was the first - and only - player to have his existence completely removed from the record books. Even his team is long forgotten, barely a footnote in the game's history.

"Every effort was made to erase any evidence that William Blakely played professional baseball, and with good reason. Blockade Billy had a secret darker than any pill or injection that might cause a scandal in sports today. His secret was much, much worse..." 


There's been at least a book a year bearing Stephen King's name for as long as I can remember, and I don't complain. I don't always manage to read them, but I buy them all, and I'm glad they're there - filed away in my library (alphabetically and by order of publication). Waiting. They're like security blankets, I suppose. For all the unevenness of King's work, for all the inevitable repetition, there's always something in each of his books that reminds me why I hold reading so dear. When the book doldrums come upon me, after the bitter pill of one too many epic high fantasies or some such, there's Stephen King to come back to. For good or ill, he writes like no other in this day and age. His conversational prose, lived-in characters and even - loathe though I am to admit it - his typically deflating climaxes are such distinctive traits you'd have no trouble identifying this author's work in the literary equivalent of a blind taste test. For some, its uniqueness has proven tiresome over the years. For others - for me - it's become positively reassuring.

Blockade Billy has all you'd expect from a new Stephen King, distilled from the intimidating quantities barely contained in last year's Under the Dome to more approachable proportions. It's pint-sized at only a hundred undersized pages, large in font and margins. What we have here is two short stories you might rather generously refer to as novelettes collected together in a nicely finished storybook-style edition. The titular narrative leads the pack. Purporting to be a tale told to the author ("Mr King") by an old baseball pro, George 'Granny' Grantham of the New Jersey Titans narrates the curious history of Blockade Billy, a small-town nobody who came to play for the Titans after the team lost both their catchers in the space of 48 hours. Billy is an odd sort, no doubt about it, with conversational skills akin to an iceberg's and a plaster perpetually on his finger, but he plays well enough that his teammates tolerate his quirks, and he's a huge hit with the fans. In short order, Blockade Billy becomes a local sensation - but there's a reason history has forgotten him, and by gum it's a bloody one.

What to say about "Blockade Billy"? As a layman when it comes to baseball, I found it to be pretty much impenetrable, wall to wall with enthusiastic commentary on classic matches and maneuvers which meant precisely nothing to me. I mean, it sure sounds authentic, but what do I know? It's difficult to criticise a tale so far outwith your usual stomping grounds, yet I think it would be safe to say readers without some working knowledge of the great American sport can expect to be left tepid by "Blockade Billy". Really, it's all a bit - and I hope you'll forgive me for this - inside baseball.

That said, there are enough of King's characteristic touches to make the experience of the uninitiated less of an ordeal than it might otherwise be: a central character whose way of echoing questions as if they were answers makes Blockade Billy as instantaneously memorable as some of the author's very finest; an affable, grass-is-greener narrative tone of voice; a neat and unpretentious framing device ties the whole thing up. Things heat up, too, as "Blockade Billy" approaches its climax, and the baseball talk is shelved in favour of actual storytelling.

"Blockade Billy" has its moments, then. "Morality," however - the second and final tale featured in this modest volume - is a roundly more satisfying endeavour in every sense. Unflinchingly direct and deeply disturbing, "Morality" is a riff on that old chestnut: the indecent proposal. Substitute teacher Chad and Nora, a nurse, are a perfectly happy couple. They struggle for money a bit, but between them, they get by. When Nora's private patient Winnie offers his nurse enough money for her to retire on in exchange for a certain... favour, and it's not what you think - Winnie isn't after a deathbed quickie - everything is thrown into chaos.

"Morality" just won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novelette, and it's no wonder. It's a story about the slippery slope of commonplace abuse that gets under your skin with such ease it could only have come from the pen of an old pro. Chad and Nora have an everyday chemistry together, and the nurse's relationship with Winnie, whose offer sets the cogs of narrative a-whirring, comes off too. The couple's descent into uncertainty and worse is a dark voyeuristic fable that alone justifies the cost of admission. Readers without some grounding in baseball fandom will find in "Blockade Billy" a mildly entertaining curiosity, not without its strengths but altogether too specific. "Morality," meanwhile, will keep us all up nights.


Blockade Billy
by Stephen king
July 2010, Hodder & Stoughton

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Sunday 25 July 2010

The BoSS for 25/07/10

And the big-hitters keep on coming. Best of the week's haul has to be a gorgeous and strictly limited proof of Peter F. Hamilton's The Evolutionary Void, the final part of the Commonwealth saga. Lest we forget I Am Number Four, the next Next Big Thing (after The Passage) in books, a minute new short story collection from Stephen King to tide us over till the release of Full Dark, No Stars and Johannes Cabal the Detective, the second in the oft-acclaimed series from the writer of the Broken Sword video-games.

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 Evolutionary Void
by Peter F. Hamilton

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

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "Having finally mastered his astonishing psychic abilities and how to harness the power of the city itself, Edeard is dismayed to find that life in Makkathran is as challenging and dangerous as ever. No matter what he does, there always seem to be threats to quash and unrest to settle. Although he knows he can eventually rid the city of corruption and anarchy, he is coming to understand that he himself will have to pay a terrible price for Makkathran's peace and liberty."

Commentary: And lo, the epic Commonwealth saga comes to a close... for now. The Evolutionary Void wraps up the story began a decade and perhaps 5000 pages ago. I'm tremendously pleased to have scored a copy of the latest from "Britain's number one science fiction writer" - not least because the proof came, much to my surprise, signed by the author and individually numbered - but I've got a great deal of catching up to do if I hope to have read it before its release date in September. The Dreaming Void, here I come!

Blockade Billy
by Stephen King

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
25/05/10 by Hodder & Stoughton

Review Priority:
5 (Immediate)

Plot Synopsis: "Even the most diehard baseball fans don't know the true story of William Blakely. He may have been the greatest player the game has ever seen, but today no one remembers his name. He was the first - and only - player to have his existence completely removed from the record books. Even his team is long forgotten, barely a footnote in the game's history.

"Every effort was made to erase any evidence that William Blakely played professional baseball, and with good reason. Blockade Billy had a secret darker than any pill or injection that might cause a scandal in sports today. His secret was much, much worse..."Commentary: Horror junkies need not fret: this minute volume isn't our Stephen King for the year. Blockade Billy contains just two short stories - novelettes if you're feeling generous. One about baseball, the other, "Morality" (which just won a Shirley Jackson award), an indecent proposal. I've... um, well. I've read them already. Couldn't help myself! There should be a review up shortly, but my thoughts, in short: I don't know that "Blockade Billy" was meant for me, but the second story contained in this lavishly presented book really hit home. Stay tuned for more, but rest assured, in the meantime, that the inclusion of "Morality" alone makes Blockade Billy worth the price of admission.

Johannes Cabal the Detective
by Jonathan L. Howard

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
08/07/10 by Headline

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "For necromancer Johannes Cabal, dealing with devils, demons and raising the dead is pretty much par for the course. But when his attempt to steal a rare book turns sour, he is faced by a far more terrifying entity – politics. While awaiting execution for his crime, Cabal is forced to resurrect an inconveniently deceased emperor. Seizing his chance, the cunning Cabal engineers his escape, fleeing the country on a state-of-the-art flying ship. But the ship has more than a few unpleasant surprises, including an unwelcome face from the past and the small matter of some mysterious murders. Cabal may work with corpses but he has absolutely no intention of becoming one. Drawn into a deadly conspiracy, is he shuffling dangerously close to the end of his mortal coil?"Commentary: I think I'll be in the minority when I admit that I just didn't feel the first book in this series. Johannes Cabal the Necromancer was a bit of fun, but so disconnected as to distract me, and its sense of humour - despite appearing to be similar to my own - simply didn't win me over. My complaints aside, and I understand them to be very particular complaints, I did have a good time reading Jonathan L. Howard's first novel, and I have high hopes for the sequel: the cliffhanger which book one ended on could very well enrich the cold titular character with the emotional context he lacked before.

Plus, isn't that a great cover? I'll be reading Johannes Cabal the Detective as soon as I'm done with The Way of Kings - expect reviews of both of Howard's books to go live within the next few weeks.

The Scent of Rain and Lightning
by Nancy Pickard

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
22/07/10 by Hodder & Stoughton

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "Twenty-six years ago, when she was only three months old, Jody Linder's father was murdered as she slept in her cot. Her mother vanished, presumed dead.

"Local trouble-maker Billy Crosby confessed to the murder and was locked up, leaving his wife and son to face the consequences in the small Kansas town of Rose. But his son Collin, now a lawyer, has successfully petitioned for a retrial, which means that - for now - Billy is back in town.

"Jody is horrified - the man who tore her family apart is living just a few streets away. So why does she find herself wondering if Collin is right? What if Billy was innocent, and her close-knit family has been hiding a terrible secret all these years?"

Commentary: Call me easily pleased, call me Ishmael, but I'd read this on the strength of its starkly beautiful title alone. The Scent of Rain and Lightning, can you imagine it? Can you smell it?

The blurb doesn't sound half bad either. Definitely reading and reviewing this one for a forthcoming experiment TSS readers have convinced me to give a go: a bit of gritty crime fiction mixed in with your daily dose of far-flung speculation. Should be fun.

I Am Number Four
by Pittacus Lore

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
26/08/10 by Michael Joseph

Review Priority:
5 (Immediate)

Plot Synopsis: "John Smith is not your average teenager. He regularly moves from small town to small town. He changes his name and identity. He does not put down roots. He cannot tell anyone who or what he really is. If he stops moving those who hunt him will find and kill him. But you can’t run forever. So when he stops in Paradise, Ohio, John decides to try and settle down. To fit in. And for the first time he makes some real friends. People he cares about – and who care about him. Never in John’s short life has there been space for friendship, or even love. But it’s just a matter of time before John’s secret is revealed. He was once one of nine. Three of them have been killed. John is Number Four. He knows that he is next..."

Commentary: Discussed this at some length in the Unbooking last week - check it out here. The review's already scheduled, so I won't say any more. Keep your peepers peeled for more on I Am Number Four very soon.

Light Boxes
by Shane Jones

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
03/06/10 by Hamish Hamilton

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "February is persecuting the townspeople. It has been winter for more than three hundred days. All forms of flight are banned and the children have started to disappear, taken from their beds in the middle of the night. The priests hang ominous sheets of parchment on the trees, signed ‘February’. And somewhere on the outskirts of the town lives February himself, with the girl who smells of honey and smoke... In short bursts of intensely poetic language, this beautifully strange and otherworldly first novel tells the story of the people in the town and their efforts to combat the mysterious spectre of February. Steeped in visual imagery, this is a hauntingly enigmatic modern fairy tale – in which nothing is as it seems."

Commentary: Maybe it's just me, but Light Boxes strikes me as... Gaiman-esque, I suppose? Perhaps I'm way off base. Regardless, this is a very slim volume, beautifully presented in the mode of Japanese paperbacks, and it sounds hypnotic. Light Boxes has quite the story, too: first published with a print run of only 500 copies, word of mouth made Shane Jones' debut a cult success, much buzzed-about - now it's coming out from publishers around the world, and I'm very much looking forward to giving it a shot.

Traitor's Gate
by Kate Elliot

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

Review Priority:
2 (Fair)

Plot Synopsis: "Reeve Joss is struggling to defend a country ravaged by the assaults of twin armies. His men now patrol a land of burning villages and homeless refugees as Joss tries to separate traitor from friend. The Reeve's thoughts are also plagued by the intriguing Zubaidit, pleasure-giver, spy and temple-trained assassin. But Zubaidit is focused on a dangerous mission, her target being warped Guardian Lord Radas. His death would leave the invading militia in chaos, but the old tales tell truly of the Guardians' immortality - and of the powers they now wield to twist the hearts of men. Joss's nights are also troubled, disturbed by dreams of Marit. His lost love has returned from death to become a feared Guardian herself, but Marit rejected the corrupt temptations they offered. She now seeks others of her kind, praying some are yet uncontaminated by the blight on the land - and have the will to fight it."

Commentary: Ah, Traitor's Gate. Would that I could read you, but you're the concluding volume of a trilogy. I can't decide if the book deities love me or hate me: all these books are great - give me an extra 80 years and I'll read every one - but with such an abundance of speculative fiction, I seem to have gotten that much more discriminating with my time and my tastes. Thus, I doubt I'll get to Kate Elliot until she starts a new series that doesn't require so much prep-work to properly engage with. Sad but true.

Friday 23 July 2010

Book Review: The Passage by Justin Cronin

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"Amy Harper Bellafonte is six years old and her mother thinks she's the most important person in the whole world. She is. Anthony Carter doesn't think he could ever be in a worse place than Death Row. He's wrong. FBI agent Brad Wolgast thinks something beyond imagination is coming. It is: the Passage.

"Deep in the jungles of eastern Colombia, Professor Jonas Lear has finally found what he's been searching for - and wishes to God he hadn't. In Memphis, Tennessee, a six-year-old girl called Amy is left at the convent of the Sisters of Mercy and wonders why her mother has abandoned her. In a maximum security jail in Nevada, a convicted murderer called Giles Babcock has the same strange nightmare, over and over again, while he waits for a lethal injection. In a remote community in the California mountains, a young man called Peter waits for his beloved brother to return home, so he can kill him. Bound together in ways they cannot comprehend, for each of them a door is about to open into a future they could not have imagined. And a journey is about to begin. An epic journey that will take them through a world transformed by man's darkest dreams, to the very heart of what it means to be human... and beyond."


When a book has made $5m before it's even been published, you know it's got to be something special. At the least, you can be sure several somebodies somewhere think it is. Or perhaps "special" isn't the right word: commercial, perhaps, is more on the money. As of this writing, The Passage has hardly hit store shelves, but that it is the literary phenomenon of 2010 - in the mode of Harry Potter, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Twilight - is in no doubt. It's been a sure thing since before the year even began: it was the subject of a high-stakes bidding war between publishers of such ferocity that it made the news; tens of thousands of ARCs went out late last year to reviewers the world over, achieving a fever pitch of publicity well in advance of release; it's been championed on USA Today; and the rights for the inevitable film adaptation have been bought for a whack of cash by Ridley Scott. Whether or not you're in the least bit interested in The Passage, it's been, and it will continue to be, impossible to ignore.

Hype is a funny old thing. At its most potent, its most prevalent, hype creates such a hurricane of sensation that the actual subject of all the calculated hoo-hah often get lost in the mix. By the time people remember that there's a book at the heart of this latest wave, and not just a whirling wall of watercooler wonderment, you'd think the thing itself would be so up against it that it could only fail to meet the sky-high expectations the hype and all that follows has instilled in us. You know how it goes. J. K. Rowling needs an editor, right? Don't you think the Millennium trilogy stretches its credibility a touch too far? And perhaps centuries-old sparkly vampires preying on teenage girls isn't so romantic, when you think about it.

Hype breeds expectation; huge hype, of the calibre that's paved the way for The Passage, breeds expectations of equal standing. But The Passage is that rarest of things: not only does it live up to every one of the promises its exhaustingly enthusiastic publicists, it positively exceeds them. You'd only be doing yourself a disservice by ignoring this book.

A few years from now, The Passage has it, the army discover a peculiar virus that scientists believe might prolong human life. Or rather, it discovers them. The fact-finding trip through the Bolivian rainforest goes horribly awry, but a secret cell of the government separates the expedition's findings from the blood-curdling tragedy of its execution and develop the virus in an isolated laboratory using conveniently disappeared death row inmates as guinea pigs. FBI agent Brad Wolghast has persuaded twelve convicted murderers to sign up - among them Anthony Carter - and it's sat easily enough with him so far. When his superiors order him to abduct a six year old girl, however, Wolghast's conscience catches up with him. The girl in question is Amy Harper Bellafonte, orphaned by her prostitute mother when a trick got horrifically out of hand. And one day, Amy will save the world.

That's how Justin Cronin begins his magnum opus - that's the plot summary of the first few hundred pages - and in any other case I'd hesitate to give so much away, but truly, it is only the beginning. In point of fact, it's pretty much the prologue. The Passage is a behemoth of a book. Clocking it at nearly 800 pages in hardcover, it's an intimidating thing in terms of its physicality, first of all; the sheer presence of this novel will be enough to turn heads. And The Passage is a tale of many parts.

The beginning represents the origin story of the manufactured terror that latterly despoils the world: Cronin calls them flyers, jumps, smokes, and a hundred other things, but cut right to the quick and they're vampires. But they're not your usual vamps - for one thing, they don't sparkle (although they do glow); there's nothing suave and seductive about these bloodthirsty creatures. A hundred years after Amy and Wolghast and the initial infection, the period during which the larger part of The Passage takes place, they hunt the barren landscape for survivors in vicious pods, though true humans are fewer and further between every day. The hundred or so inhabitants of a walled compound protected by harsh fluorescent lights believe they're the only people left alive, and for all intents and purposes they might as well be. When the lights threaten to go out, an unexpected visitor represents the only hope of a cadre of survivors who take to the world in search of a way to take the planet back.

The Passage is an honest-to-God epic the likes of which hasn't been seen since The Stand. This'll be blasphemy to some, but come to that, Cronin's tome is still more impressive than the novel many consider to be Stephen King's greatest. Certainly, it's better written than anything the so-called modern-day Dickens has produced in his career: in terms of characterisation and pacing, Cronin is surely King's equal; in terms of wordsmithing, however, he handily overcomes that author's awkward tendency towards the trite. The Passage can be pedestrian when the occasion calls for it - during action sequences Cronin's prose is snappy and matter-of-fact - but in between times his writing is considered, composed, even poetic. The Passage, you come to understand, is a passionate piece of fiction, honest and heart-felt. It chronicles any number of brutalities, awful things happen in almost every one of its seventy-some chapters - characters you've come to care for are killed indiscriminately; unsettling events are the order of the day, every day; enemies grow more powerful with every step our heroes take: our expectations become like so much dust on a windy day - and yet, against all the odds, it is an undercurrent of hope that drives Cronin's narrative. Hope, if not for a better today, then for a more tolerant tomorrow.

Hands down, The Passage is the best book I've read this year, and believe you me, I've read a lot of books this year. It has its faults, of course: its sprawling nature gives it a somewhat episodic feel that can be jarring at first, and the very middle fifth is perhaps a little baggy. But it begins brilliantly, ends with a deafening smack of surprise that will have you hungry for the next book in the series immediately, and in the interim, you'll find the experience of reading The Passage as compelling as any addiction. By turns pacey and exhilarating, tragic and touching, breathtaking in its scope and near-perfect in its execution, Justin Cronin handily inherits the mantle that Rowling, Larsson and Meyer have shared these past few years. You mightn't think a vampire apocalypse is the most likely candidate for the cultural zeitgeist to hone in on, but make no mistake: The Passage is this year's literary sensation, and for once, it deserves the attention.


The Passage
by Justin Cronin
June 2010, Orion Books

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Recommended and Related Reading

Thursday 22 July 2010

The Way of Kilobytes: Book One of the OS Archive

Gosh and golly, it's a whole new day and I see I haven't a post scheduled to go up. Clearly, this cannot be. So. What have I been up to?

Well, mostly, backing up. I have about 4TB of data on an assortment of HDDs that against all good reason I fear I will somehow manage to lose in the move from XP Pro to Windows 7. It's happened before; it could happen again! I'm properly nervous about moving to a new operating system after so goddamn long, but frankly the computer's running so slow as is it's that or a re-install, and XP is old enough now that I think it's finally time to take the plunge. A clean start and all that.

Then again, even with a whole new OS to boot, "a clean start" with 4TB of old data is much like moving into a new house with every last item of clothing and furniture and entertainment you own... messy.

So. I've been reading, while I oversee the emigration of a deca-million kilobytes. Mostly, I've been reading The Way of Kings. I'm more than halfway through it, now, but I'll confess to taking a break from this behemoth of a book twice already: once to gobble up I Am Number Four and again, this past weekend, to revel in my proof of The Silent Land - both of which books you'll be reading about in The BoSS over the next few weeks.

The Silent Land isn't out till November, so it might be a while before you hear any more from me about it, but hear this: I've got drafts of my Best of 2010 posts on my dashboard, and the latest Graham Joyce has already knocked one book from these five out of the running.

I Am Number Four you'll be hearing about soon enough. The next Next Big Thing, but is it half so deserving of the unwashed masses' attention as The Passage? No.

But it's a bit of fun.

Anyway. That's your update for the day. I'll be a proper blogger again tomorrow, I promise!

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Film Review: Inception

I've been looking forward to Inception since before The Speculative Scotsman launched. Way back when, I singled it out as my most anticipated film of the year - nothing set to play in theatres during 2010 came close to evoking such excitement in me. The last time I was so psyched about a film, The Dark Knight was just about to come out, and I firmly believe the most recent Batman movie is one of the greatest pieces of cinema in existence, its comic book roots be damned. Furthermore, I'm of the opinion that Christopher Nolan, who also gave us Memento, Insomnia and The Prestige, is singularly the most accomplished filmmaker of our generation, and he has been living with the bare bones of the concept that Inception enacts for a long time. Only now, with the tremendous success of The Dark Knight to bolster him, has Nolan had the budget and the license to realise his dream.

And what a dream it is...

There were fears, just before Inception opened, that we were looking at a modern-day Blade Runner, which is to say a great critical success and potentially a cult sensation, but a flop at the box office; a financial doomsday device when you're talking about a film which spares so little in the way of expense as Inception. In the end, I suppose only time will tell, but if there's a single thing that has worked to discourage people from seeing this movie, it's that they don't have the slightest clue what it's about. I've been following its development more closely than most, and I confess: as I walked into the theatre on opening day, I hardly knew what to expect myself. The marketing has been powerful, in its way - "From the Director of The Dark Knight" and all that - but counter-intuitively rather vague; deceptive, even. The trailers have been impressive and yet utterly baffling, the posters iconic but insubstantial. From the earliest stages of development through to Inception's eventual release, this movie has been shrouded in mystery and enigma. Various of its cast members are on record saying even they didn't fully grasp what was going on, for goodness' sake. Only now that the movie's actually out there have people begun to understand what Inception is.

And it's not half so complicated as we've been led to believe.

In fact, here: it's the future. It's not a future too far removed from our own era, either - the only real advance of note between now and then is an interface which allows certain people (extractors) to insert themselves in other people's dream. "It's not strictly legal," as Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb explains to trainee architect Juno - I mean, uh... Ellen Page as Ariadne - but an infrastructure has developed around the technology nevertheless.  Extractors are hired to steal secrets from the subconscious of their subjects. They immerse themselves in the imagined landscapes of rich businessmen's dreamworlds - or else artificial dreamscapes crafted by architects such as Ariadne to resemble as much - to pilfer patents and intellectual property. Not exactly fodder for an intellectual Summer blockbuster, huh? Well, some high-flyers are thus trained in the art of resisting extractors. Their defenses take the form of anonymous, gun-toting agents who are apt to explode things, given the opportunity. So, sorted.

Now Cobb has a secret. It's something to do with his dead wife, played - I can't say how - by Marion Cotillard. It's the reason he can't go home to be with his practically orphaned children; he's been hiding out on foreign shores with a team of extractors including Joseph Gordon Levitt's naturally suave Arthur, stealing secrets for great whacks of cash with which he hopes to pay off the skeletons in his closet. But some secrets can't be bought out. In fact, Cobb is about ready to call the whole thing off when Saito (played to perfection by Ken Watanabe) makes him a once-in-a-lifetime proposal. Instead of extraction, Saito enlists Cobb and his team to plant the seed of an idea in the subconscious of Cillian Murphy's anxious Robert Fisher, recently bereaved and newly in charge of a priceless business empire. The idea is strictly theoretical, but if Cobb can do it, he can see his kids again. It's a gimme that he'll try.

Alright. Perhaps Inception is a bit more demanding than your usual popcorn fare. Nolan seems to have skipped the mediocre origin story of Batman Begins with this potential franchise in favour of a more roundly satisfying sequel straight out of the gate. Inception, by all rights, could have been Extraction 2, the follow-up to a film which would have served to familiarise us with Cobb's ensemble and more formally introduce the world outwith the somewhat contextless dreamscape we spend the vast majority of our time in as it stands. But though Nolan makes a stimulating game of out its explanation, the initial concept which informs all the action is straightforward enough in itself, and the spin on which the narrative largely pivots isn't hard to get your head around. Inception is simply the inverse of extraction, with raised stakes: Cobb and company must go in and give rather than take and get the hell out. Keeping track of the various stages of the subconscious the intrepid extractors must plumb can be somewhat problematic - take a single leap of faith, however, and the rest fall into place - but otherwise, Inception isn't half as mind-boggling as I think we all expected. Devotees of science-fiction in film or literature will have no trouble with it.

So what's left? Well, everything. Inception isn't somehow a disappointment because all the publicity has made a mountain out of a molehill. Inception, to being with, has no moles in. Nor is it anything less than enrapturing from start to finish. Nolan's script is indescribably clever; spare, direct and laden with significance. Alongside the sumptuous visuals and some incredibly realised special effects - be prepared to see the world from a startling new perspective - it works to engage you immediately, and from the explosive pre-credits sequence to the movie's smartly subdued last moments, the pace never lets up. Inception is solid entertainment through and through: action-packed, effortlessly immersive and intelligent rather than bafflingly overwrought.

The cast, too, are great. Between Shutter Island and this speculative masterpiece, DiCaprio has finally come into his own as the leading man Hollywood has insisted on casting him as. At long last, we can believe in him, invest in his character, and it's just as well: if DiCaprio hadn't pulled Cobb off, Inception would be a much poorer film for his failure, for none of his companions - short, perhaps, Cotillard (be she dream, memory, delusion or illusion) - are in the least sympathetic. Michael Caine chuckles for a few minutes of screen time as Cobb's mentoring father-figure; Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy and Joseph Gordon Levitt all talk the talk and walk the walk, though they exist, you come to understand, more as functions of the narrative's strict requirements than actual people.

And that's the trouble with Inception. It's brilliantly conceived intellectual eye-candy with striations of action and intrigue, but excepting a single character arc - Cobb's, thank God - it's as cold as a fish frozen in formaldehyde. There's no emotional depth to anyone other than DiCaprio's anti-hero - even Mal, whom Cotillard plays to a dreamlike T, is more an aspect of Cobb's character than a character unto herself. It's all business.

But rest easy: there's no shortage of pleasure to be had with every other facet of this fabulous mindfuck of a movie. Christopher Nolan is a remarkable writer and director, almost without parallel in contemporary cinema, and Inception sees him at the height of his filmmaking prowess. It can be a chilly experience on occasion, perhaps, but get your thermals on and button up - in the end, it's well worth weathering the cold for this perception-bending tour de force.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Castles In The Sky

When it rains, as I've had occasion to find out these past few months, it pours. The obnoxious, if not quite record-breaking heat shows no sign of letting up, but at least it's not dry heat any longer: the skies have deigned to crack open, the better to vent all the perspiration they've cunningly repurposed as rain.

It has rained, and rained some more. It has since, to no-one's surprise, continued to rain. Maddeningly, while we've been suffering through a seemingly endless onslaught of piddling and spitting and showering, two weeks of Wimbledon have been had in the baking sun without interruption - the first time this century rain hasn't stopped play at least once, for that matter.

But we're not talking tennis. Nor, indeed, do I mean to grumble about the weather. In this case, appearances can be quite, quite deceiving: this is a post about Studio Ghibli, of all things. All that burbling there was just context for me to awkwardly segue from, see? Wait for it.

Wait for it...

Because - here we go - just as you can spend ages waiting for rain, years can go by without word one from the Japanese animation studio to rule all Japanese animation studios. And yet, within a few weeks, there's been news of not one bit of new Ghibli goodness to look forward to, but two. Here's the first:

The Borrowers Arrietty is set to be released in Japan just a few weeks from now. Lucky buggers. It's coming from Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the key animator of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away - two of the studio's best, at least of late - and sure, he's not Hayao Miyazaki, but then, Miyazaki hasn't always been at the helm of Ghibli's incredible creations; and given that the man announced his "retirement" a few years ago, we'd best make peace with what talent there still is at the fan-favourite production house sooner rather than later.

Saying that, The Borrowers aren't exactly my favourite thing ever. I still remember that painful live-action movie from a decade and change ago, with Ian Holmes' would-be Bilbo Baggins as the micro-family's dear ol' Daddy. But this is Ghibli, people. Dodgy subject matter or not, magic will be made. Even the least notable of this studio's output could stand shoulder to shoulder with Disney's best and come out the better for the comparison.

But who knows when we'll see The Borrowers Arrietty here in the UK. What I'm really excited about is Studio Ghibli's other big project at the moment:

Ni No Kuni, transliterally "The Another World," was announced as a DS game first of all. At some point, however, Ghibli must have glimpsed the horrifying compression all their gorgeous animations would suffer on Nintendo's low-rent handheld, and thanks be to the video-game deities, Ni No Kuni wasn't so far along the production pipeline that Level-5 couldn't trade up a platform. No, not even to the Wii. It's coming to the PS3!

After my abbreviated experience with Final Fantasy XIII, I have a sneaking suspicion that I may just be over JRPGs - breaks my heart a little to say as much, but there it is. With story and design from the incomparable Studio Ghibli, though, and the makers of Dark Cloud and the Professor Layton puzzle games doing the legwork behind the scenes, Ni No Kuni should be a hell of a game whether I play it or not.

Oh, Ghibli. Ghibli, Ghibli, Ghibli...

Clearly it's time for a Totoro rewatch, am I right? :)