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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  1. Hey Niall, I just received my winnings today :) :) I'm glad I bought the UK hardcover so I don't have to open this baby up :) Thanks again!

  2. I quite enjoyed it but I too found myself wondering how the Edinburgh sections of the book would work for someone who doesn't know the city. The fact that Lucy Stone is a regular in the Auld Hoose tells *me* a fair bit about her, but is probably going to mean nothing to most of his readers.