Tuesday 30 November 2010

Karmic Chameleons

So I've got good news, and bad news.

Shall we get the bad juju out of the way first? We shall. That way we can end on a high. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is --- oh, I can hardly bear to say it... it's coming back.


Sadly, if and when it does - and sickeningly there seems to be something of an appetite for some sort of reboot (if not necessarily the one that's been mooted about the interwebs this past fortnight or so) - everyone's favourite vampire slayer will be returning short ANYONE who had ANYTHING to do with the original, touchstone series.

Kristy Swanson - what was Buffy in the dodgy movie, remember her now? - seems to be the only voice in support of this filth. Someone been out of work a little too long, maybe? Well, take a hike, Kristy Swanson! You keep out of this, you hear?

Anyway, io9 had the story originally, cobbled together from a press release issued on November 11th. Apparently Whit Anderson, who if you'll pardon the play on words we know not one whit about - not even an IMDB page, would you believe it - went to Warner Brothers with a unique new take on the Scoobs, and lo, the scent of money pervaded the air. But don't worry! As the sales pitch assures us, "this is not your high school Buffy [but] she'll be just as witty, tough, and sexy and we all remember her to be."

Mmm. Lucky that. That's almost exactly what I remember Buffy being. Good to know those WB folks totally get it, right?

You know, I'd get up in arms about all this, but I have a real hard time believing this is even a real thing. Not to suggest io9's talking hooey or anything, but their headline - "It's really happening" - is true only insofar as some people somewhere have an inkling to reboot Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Things are no further along than that, and I don't expect they'll get much further along. Thank Christ. Though I suppose stranger things have happened...

Moving along. The good news? The good news is the latest development as re: the proposed Locke and Key TV series. Locke and Key, for those who don't already know, is a comic book. Now I like comic books - not too much of a surprise, I hope - and given Joe Hill's involvement, I expect I'd like this comic book very much indeed, except... umm. Let's say I gave up on single issues many a year ago (more like I went cold turkey), and even the cost-to-time-spent ratio of trade paperback collections has gotten hard to reconcile of late, so Locke and Key is - alongside The Walking Dead, Ex Machina and a hundred hundred others - one of those series I've been dying to get my teeth into.

Well, what with the news of the TV series, now I won't have to!

Oh, but I'm only teasing. :)

But the news as per the mooted adaptation of Locke and Key has gone from great to incredible. As if having onboard the showrunners of far and away the best genre series currently on television - why Fringe of course - wasn't significant enough of a class act, add to that the likely involvement of Mark Romanek, director of One Hour Photo and most recently Never Let Me Go (which, damn it all, still hasn't hit theatres here in the UK). Romanek's reportedly set to direct the pilot episode.

If that all doesn't speak highly of this show's massive swag bag of potential, I don't know what finally will.

I'm certainly hyped. You?

Monday 29 November 2010

Man the Bird-Cannons!

I don't know if the Angry Birds have been keeping me sane or driving me quite, quite mad while I've been fending off this bastard cold - pretty much better now, thanks all! - but one way or another I'm glad to have had the little screamers in my pocket these past few days.

Gladder still to have stumbled upon this YouTube video in my time of (more than usual) neediness; gave me a good chuckle, I don't mind telling you. Of course my chuckling quickly turned into a fit of spluttering and coughing.

Be that as it may, behold the fun:

Takes me back to better times!

Better times might be pushing it, to be honest. Other times is perhaps more to my point: times when I'd sneak up to the old telly in the loft to watch Eurotrash in secret. Why in secret? Well, those filthy Frenchies, you know... my folks would not have approved.

Ah, the times, eh?

Truthfully I'm starting to feel a bit like Curden Craw...


While we all reel from perhaps the most surprising surprise that's ever surprised us - after months of tedious speculation, it turns out (who'd have thunk it?) Pat the-big-attention-seeker-on-a-stick's not quitting the internet after all! - I thought a little ranting courtesy of Margaret Atwood might be like echinacea for the soul. A superb new interview with her popped up on The Guardian online yesterday, and yes, by the sounds of it she's still a right old bag, and yes, crucially, she still thinks the so-called "Long Pen" is a dandy idea, thank you very much.

She also says such things as:

'Go three days without water and you
don't have any human rights.
Why? Because you're dead.'

Seriously though: it's a stonker of an interview. Recommended reading for the day, if not the week. And it reminds me I really need to get to The Year of the Flood. I mean, it got some pretty negative press, but hell, so did Oryx and Crake, and readers, I adored that book... adored it.

Anyway. More funs in a minute!

Sunday 28 November 2010

The BoSS for 28/11/10

Another week, another edition of The BoSS, and I'm getting to thinking I might change up the formula of these posts come the new year. Plenty of other sites make do with a galley of images each week, if even that, and to be honest the amount of work that goes into putting a single one of these books received run-downs together makes a fine argument in favour of my finding an alternative method.

Would anyone be sad to see it go, were I to call a halt on The BoSS?

For the moment, though, the show must go on...

Click through to Meet the BoSS for an introduction and an explanation as to why you should care about the Bag o' Speculative Swag, if you haven't met already, or else 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.


Guardians of the Phoenix
by Eric Brown

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
16/12/10 by Solaris

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "Global warming has taken its terrible toll. The seas have dried up and deserts cover much of the Earth's surface. Humankind has been annihilated by drought and the nuclear and biological conflicts following the Great Breakdown. Desperate bands of humans still survive. Some live far underground, away from the searing temperatures and ongoing conflicts on the surface; others scrape a living in the remains of shattered cities above ground. In Paris, Pierre lives like an animal among the sand-drifted ruins of the once great city. Near death, he faces a choice: join the strangers heading south in search of water, or remain in the city and perish. Guardians of the Phoenix tells the story of the last survivors on planet Earth, their desperate fight for survival and their last hope to save the world."

Commentary: Thanks to Solaris' heavily revised reissue a few months ago, I enjoyed baby's first Eric Brown, Engineman, very much, and it was more than a decade old already. Guardians of the Phoenix, on the other hand, is new Eric Brown, and I'm hugely excited to see how his fiction has evolved in the interim.

Sounds very different, mind you. Not that that's a negative at all...

This. And soon, I hope.

Betrayer of Worlds
by Larry Niven & Edward M. Lerner

Release Details:
Published in the US on
12/10/09 by Tor / Forge

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "Fleeing the supernova chain reaction at the galactic core, the cowardly Puppeteers of the Fleet of Worlds have - just barely - survived. They’ve stumbled from one crisis to the next: The rebellion of their human slaves. The relentless questing of the species of Known Space. The spectacular rise of the starfish-like Gw’oth. The onslaught of the genocidal Pak. Catastrophe looms again as past crises return - and converge. Who can possibly save the Fleet of Worlds from its greatest peril yet?

"Louis Wu? Trapped in the Wunderland civil war, all he wants is to go home - but the only possible escape will plunge him into unknowable danger. Ol’t’ro? The Gw’oth ensemble mind fled across the stars to establish a colony world free from tyranny. But some problems cannot be left behind, and other problems - like the Fleet of Worlds itself - are racing straight at them. Achilles? Despite past disgrace, the charismatic Puppeteer politician knows he is destined for greatness. He will do anything to seize power - and to take his revenge on everyone who ever stood in his way. Nessus? The insane Puppeteer scout is out of ideas, out of resources, with only desperation left to guide him.

"Their hopes and fears, dreams and ambitions are about to collide. And the winner takes... worlds."

Commentary: Oh god. Yet another of the embarrassing holes in my knowledge of classic genre fiction comes to light: I've never read Ringworld. I have it - a couple of the sequels, too - but alas, it's remained on the bookshelf, untouched, since whatever it was moved me to purchase it... oh, a decade ago?

Anyway, this prequel, co-written by Ed Lerner, could be the perfect place for me to start. Betrayer of Worlds seems to be the first volume of a prequel trilogy, only indirectly (as yet) related to the actual Ringworld.

Though it sounds somewhat intimidating. Maybe the Ringworld story would be better served if I dug out my copy of the first novel proper and start in on the series where everyone else did... thoughts?

Stormlord Rising
by Glenda Larke

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
04/11/11 by Orbit

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "The last Stormlord is dead - and war has arrived. The nomadic Reduners have put the Quartern's rainlords to the sword, leaving their cities without water or hope. Shale still lives, despite being betrayed, drugged and sold to his greatest enemy. Yet Shale needs his adversary more than his freedom, as thousands will die if they don't channel the rains together. For Shale isn't a Stormlord in his own right - at least, not yet. Only Terelle could help him now, but she's a prisoner herself and far from home. And a new force is rising in the desert. While kept as a Reduner whore, Rainlord Ryka Feldspar witnesses a power that can move the sands themselves. The Reduners are hailing this power as god-given, and its impact could transform a world."

Commentary: Right on the cusp of my blogging days, I was lucky enough to win a signed copy of The Last Stormlord - volume one of this (presumed) trilogy. For one reason or another I never quite found the time to get to it, but the reception of Glenda Larke's latest has been superlative, and if I had all the time in the world at my command, I'd dig into Stormlord Rising right quick. As is... we'll have to see, I suppose. I have the best of intentions - though what all know where a road of those leads!

The Diviner's Tale
by Bradford Morrow

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
01/01/11 by Corvus

Review Priority:
5 (Immediate)

Plot Synopsis: "Cassandra Brooks is a single mother-of-two, schoolteacher and water diviner. Deep in the woods as she dowses the land for a property developer, she is confronted by the body of a young girl, swinging from a tree, hanged. When she returns with the authorities, the body has vanished. Already regarded as an eccentric, her story is disbelieved- until a girl turns up in the woods, alive, mute and identical to the girl in Cassandra's vision. In the days that follow, Cassandra's visions become darker and more frequent as they begin to take on a tangible form. Forced to confront a past she has tried to forget, Cassandra finds herself locked in a game of cat-and-mouse with a real life killer who has haunted her for longer than she can remember. At once an ingeniously plotted mystery and a magical love story, The Diviner's Tale will pull you helplessly down into Cassandra's luminous world."

Commentary: Hey-o! Another gorgeous Corvid, and you know, going by the track record of this sumptuous new publishing house, that's just about all I need to get excited about The Diviner's Tale. Add to that this beautiful-looking new novel - and the picture doesn't even do it justice (think red gilded pages) - comes from the founding editor of Conjunctions magazine... well. I expect great things.

To be read and reviewed very soon, no doubt about it.

Out of the Dark
by David Weber

Release Details:
Published in the US on
27/07/04 by Tor / Forge

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "The Galactic Hegemony has been around a long time, and it likes stability - the kind of stability that member species like the aggressive, carnivorous Shongairi tend to disturb. So when the Hegemony Survey Force encountered a world whose so-called "sentients" - humans, they called themselves - were almost as bad as the Shongairi themselves, it seemed reasonable to use the Shongairi to neutralize them before they could become a second threat to galactic peace. And if the Shongairi took a few knocks in the process, all the better.

"Now, Earth is conquered. The Shongairi have arrived in force, and humanity’s cities lie in radioactive ruins. In mere minutes, more than half the human race has died.

"Master Sergeant Stephen Buchevsky, who thought he was being rotated home from his latest tour in Afghanistan, finds himself instead prowling the back country of the Balkans, dodging alien patrols and trying to organize scattered survivors without getting killed. And in the southeastern US, firearms instructor and former Marine Dave Dvorak finds himself at the center of a growing network of resistance—putting his extended family at lethal risk, but what else can you do?

"On the face of it, Buchevsky’s and Dvorak’s chances look bleak, as do prospects for the rest of the surviving human race. But it may well be that Shongairi and the Hegemony alike have underestimated the inhabitants of that strange planet called Earth..."

Commentary: Huh. Dog aliens and vampires... a novel, the first in a trilogy of them (of course), grown out of a short in Warriors, the GRRM and Gardner Dozois anthology... from an esteemed, Big Name science-fiction author. Sounds pretty fine, right?

Well you'd think, but people seem to hate Out of the Dark! Rarely do you come across such overwhelming negativity in regards to a new release. On the other hand, the Yeti what stomps reviewed this a few weeks ago, and - with reservations, admittedly - liked it almost despite himself, calling Out of the Dark, with the utmost cunning, "a popcorn novel that refuses to play in the shadows."

Considering all of which, I'm not at all sure what to think of Out of the Dark. So I suppose we'll see, won't we?

The Best of Tomes of the Dead
by Various Authors

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
09/11/10 by Abbadon

Review Priority:
2 (Fair)

Plot Synopsis: "Tomes of The Dead: tales of the hungry dead, roaming the earth, bringing a charnel plague to humanity. Tomes of The Dead: where graveyards yawn and zombies push up through worm-ridden soil as undeath wakes rigor mortis stiffened limbs. Tomes of The Dead: the very best in zombie fiction from some of the finest talents working in horror today.

"Volume 1 in this series collects together The Words of Their Roaring, I Zombie and Anno Mortis."Commentary: Another omnibus from Abaddon. Three writers from 2000AD, from what I gather, turn their talents towards the omniscient zombie horde. In all honesty I've several more immediately interesting zombie books still to get to, and this omnibus doesn't threaten their position in the life-threateningly large TBR stack in the least. Let's call The Best of Tomes of the Dead a neat little stocking filler and leave it at that.

Friday 26 November 2010

Book Review: 1222 by Anne Holt

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"1222 metres above sea level, train 601 from Oslo to Bergen careens off iced rails as the worst snowstorm in Norwegian history gathers force around it. Marooned in the high mountains with night falling and the temperature plummeting, its 269 passengers are forced to abandon their snowbound train and decamp to a centuries-old mountain hotel. They ought to be safe from the storm here, but as dawn breaks one of them will be found dead, murdered. With the storm showing no sign of abating, retired police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen is asked to investigate. But Hanne has no wish to get involved. She has learned the hard way that truth comes at a price and sometimes that price just isn't worth paying. Her pursuit of truth and justice has cost her the love of her life, her career in the Oslo Police Department and her mobility: she is paralysed from the waist down by a bullet lodged in her spine. Trapped in a wheelchair, trapped by the killer within, trapped by the deadly storm outside, Hanne's growing unease is shared by everyone in the hotel. Should she investigate, or should she just wait for help to arrive? And all the time rumours swirl about a secret cargo carried by train 601. Why was the last carriage sealed? Why is the top floor of the hotel locked down? Who or what is being concealed? And, of course, what if the killer strikes again?"


I can hardly count how many times I've been perusing a plot synopsis on the back cover of a book, perfectly innocent of what narrative delights may or may not await me within, only to have my experience utterly transformed by Another Goddamn Spoiler. Pivotal twists and late-game revelations - he was a ghost the whole time, don't you know - are given away by overeager copy writers with such alarming regularity that it doesn't even surprise me any more. Besides which, blurbs are notorious for deceptively representing a given narrative, framing a tale just so in spite of the actual facts, the better to hit on all the high points its perceived market demands. It doesn't take a genius to see why. Say there's a vampire in your book. Say he or she could be described as sexy. Instant win: slap "sexy vampire" somewhere in the blurb and the urban fantasy market will lap it up. Maybe they'll come away disappointed when it turns out the sexy vampire in question doesn't do any of the usual sexy vampire things, but if they've already laid down their dollars, so what?

Perhaps I'm hopelessly jaded. No, strike that, I'll do you one better: clearly, I am - the very thought of optimism has me shaking my embittered old bonce. In any event, over the years, I've learned to swallow sales pitches pitching anything you can think to sell with a grain of salt. Whenever I can afford to, I'll avoid them entirely. Up until recently, my reading consisted almost entirely of books by authors I'd read (and enjoyed) before, or books recommended - indeed blurbed - by those authors. These days, I get a lot of new fiction for review, and no-one wants to hear me babble ad infinitum about China Mieville and Guy Gavriel Kay, so everything gets a fair shake. Come rain or shine, I'll do my utmost to read the first few chapters of whatever comes my way. Failing that, loathe though I am to admit as much, there's the blurb. Whenever time is particularly tight or I get something that looks outwith my expertise or distinctly similar to a Stephanie Meyer book, there's the blurb. If the blurb doesn't sell me, that's mostly that, and given my misgivings... well, with the To Be Read stack growing ever more oppressive in size, books along those lines don't often make it out of the slush. 1222 did.

Now I don't read a huge amount of crime fiction, nor will I often pick up a series eight books into its stride, but there was something about the plot synopsis on the back cover of 1222 that made it impossible to overlook, something so undeniably irresistable about its icy twist on the classic locked room murder mystery that I simply had to hear Norway's former Minister for Justice (latterly bestselling author Anne Holt) out. "1222 metres above sea level," so it goes, "train 601 from Oslo to Bergen careens off iced rails as the worst snowstorm in Norwegian history gathers force around it. Marooned in the high mountains with night falling and the temperature plummeting, its 269 passengers are forced to abandon their snowbound train and decamp to a centuries-old mountain hotel. They ought to be safe from the storm here, but as dawn breaks one of them will be found dead, murdered."

Add to that Holt's wheelchair-bound heroine, retired detective Hanne Wilhelmsen, and we have a very interesting protagonist, too, as potentially appealing in her way as the blood-pumping pitch. What a disappointment, then, that - as it happens - that's all there is to 1222: a high concept that goes nowhere and a cardboard cutout of a lead character. Hanne, firstly, never coheres into anything more than a collection of quirks. She's paralysed from the waist down; the trauma has left her bitter and untrusting; she has a natural aptitude for detective work, though of course she wishes otherwise; she has a perverse habit of ending up in situations that demand her unwilling talents; and she's a lesbian, what of it? Hanne spends the entire novel either put-upon or dismissive. Her perspective is thus hopelessly fractured. The actual detective work we're told she's so good at amounts to her sat in a room with a pen and some paper for several chapters. Holt deigns to describe all this to us - without, of course, giving away the huge (and hugely disappointing) reveal before the inevitable Columbo moment.

Which is to say, the bit where the curtain is finally pulled back on the mystery, such as it is, at the procedural heart of 1222. Everyone wants to know: who killed infamous "football priest" Cato Hammer? Well, you'll find out, but don't think the revelation will be at all clever or even satisfying when you do; Hanne's much-vaunted deduction begins and ends, I can exclusively reveal, with a sock. A sock. What little intrigue there is in the interim feels forced and unconvincing. In a setting and a situation that should bleed tension and suspense with little effort, you never sense Hanne is in any danger whatsoever - and the entirety of 1222 is told from her perspective. She's just been delayed by a snowstorm. And we're just stuck in an old hotel with her, while what I believe Holt means to pass off as plot happens.

Perhaps it's something to do with the translation... the prose, whether stilted by design or reinterpretation, is just clumsy enough to jar, so that the reading experience proceeds only in fits and starts. Characters major and minor feel so unnatural as to be tangible in exactly the wrong way. Holt clearly despises the press, and manuevers whomsoever she can in order to deliver such indictments in vitriolic slapdash.

Shall we say, then, that I did not love 1222? I did not - nor did I expect to, if I'm honest. And yet there was promise, there: in the initial plot and Hanne Wilhemsen, Anne Holt offers up - if only momentarily - a narrative and a character so arresting that I was won over almost despite myself. Would that either had lasted beyond the blurb on the back cover.


by Anne Holt

UK Publication: December 2010, Corvus
Buy this book from
Amazon.co.uk / The Book Depository

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Book Review: The Tiger by John Vaillant

Buy this book from

It’s December 1997, and a man-eating tiger is on the prowl outside a remote village in Russia’s Far East. The tiger isn’t just killing people, it’s annihilating them, and a team of men and their dogs must hunt it on foot through the forest in the brutal cold. As the trackers sift through the gruesome remains of the victims, they discover that these attacks aren’t random: the tiger is apparently engaged in a vendetta. Injured, starving, and extremely dangerous, the tiger must be found before it strikes again.

As he re-creates these extraordinary events, John Vaillant gives us an unforgettable portrait of this spectacularly beautiful and mysterious region. We meet the native tribes who for centuries have worshipped and lived alongside tigers, even sharing their kills with them. We witness the arrival of Russian settlers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, soldiers and hunters who greatly diminished the tiger populations. And we come to know their descendants, who, crushed by poverty, have turned to poaching and further upset the natural balance of the region.

This ancient, tenuous relationship between man and predator is at the very heart of this remarkable book. Throughout we encounter surprising theories of how humans and tigers may have evolved to coexist, how we may have developed as scavengers rather than hunters, and how early Homo sapiens may have fit seamlessly into the tiger’s ecosystem. Above all, we come to understand the endangered Siberian tiger, a highly intelligent super-predator that can grow to ten feet long, weigh more than six hundred pounds, and range daily over vast territories of forest and mountain.

Beautifully written and deeply informative, The Tiger circles around three main characters: Vladimir Markov, a poacher killed by the tiger; Yuri Trush, the lead tracker; and the tiger himself. It is an absolutely gripping tale of man and nature that leads inexorably to a final showdown in a clearing deep in the taiga.


You gotta love a good tiger.

"Like a fist, or a cross, the tiger is a symbol we all understand. [It] functions simultaneously as a posterchild for the conservation movement and as shorthand for power, sex, and danger." (p.297) Add to that, the tiger's "apparent imperviousness to just about anything sets this animal at a godlike remove." (p.257)

As I was saying, a good tiger goes a long way - Richard Parker from the ubiquitous Life of Pi leaps to mind, fully-formed at the thought - but a bad tiger? Surely that's even more fertile territory for a story. As New Yorker and National Geographic contributor John Vaillant asserts, "Ongoing in the debate about out origins and our nature is the question of how we became fascinated by monsters, but only certain kinds. The existence of this book alone is case in point. No one would read it if it were about a pig or a moose (or even a person) who attacked unemployed loggers. Tigers, on the other hand, get our full attention," (p.190) and so too they do.

The tiger at the steaming heart of The Tiger, Vaillant's second non-fiction novel after The Golden Spruce, is a captivating creature, majestic, unimaginably powerful and assiduously intelligent; quite impossible to avert your eyes from as it stalks what the Chinese called the shuhai - literally 'forest sea' - of Russia's easternmost extreme. There, the tiger is symbolic, too, of a way of life, a sense of persistence against the odds - of survival when (not to mention where) life should not be sustainable. For by all rights, "If Russia is what we think it is, then tigers should not be possible there. After all, how could a creature so closely associated with stealth and grace and heat survive in a country so heavy-handed, damaged, and cold." (p.19)

The Tiger hinges on an account of one so-called 'cannibal' tiger's reign of terror over the people of Sobolonye, a small and unimaginably isolated community of former loggers decimated by perestroika. Many of those who remain in Soboloyne can only make ends meet by poaching, and there is no greater prize - nor a prize more illicit - than a tiger. For a single skin, and for the organs' presumed medicinal qualities, the Chinese have been known to pay sums in excess the annual wages of a man in this climate. Thankfully, a sense of respect for the tiger stays the trigger fingers of most such hunters, and if - I should say when - that fails, there's always Yuri Trush: the head of one division of Inspection Tiger, which is to say a charity-funded organisation dedicated to keeping the poachers of Siberia at bay.

The tables, then, are rather turned when Trush is charged with the investigation of Vladimir Markov's death. A logger-come-hunter-come-poacher, Markov has been brutally mauled by a tiger at the site of his tumbledown caravan in the woods, a "sinister" act, akin to "first-degree murder: premeditated, with malice aforethought, and a clear intent to kill." (p.128) And it seems, in short order, that this almost mythical creature has developed a taste for human flesh."

"The horror of a thing is usually derived from its presence, however distorted or fragmentary, but here in the scrub and snow by the Takhalo was a broken frame with no picture in it [...] these clothes were only a few days old, and their owner had ceased to exist. To end a person's life is one thing; to eradicate him from the face of the earth is another. The latter is far more difficult to do, and yet the tiger had done it, had transported this young man beyond death to a kind of carnal oblivion." (p.234)

Vaillant is meticulous in his presentation of the thrilling narrative which begins and ends each chapter of The Tiger, and though his tendency towards extended digression might seem pace-breaking to begin with - particularly in terms of a front-loaded assortment of the potted histories of near every "character" to crop up - one gradually comes to understand that the terror of the tiger is largely a framing device for a story of post-perestroika Russia, rather than the other way around.

In any event, in both senses The Tiger makes for fascinating and deeply rewarding read. Vaillant's prose is precise, yet at a comfortable remove from clinical; his ambition is great and the scope of this text admirably far-reaching, from questions of language and philosophy to considerations of biology and environmentalism; and in his stop/start relaying of the tale of this crazed Amur tiger, he instills in the reader the very question which has made story-telling so great through the ages: what happens next? The tension this narrative evokes in that regard is positively palpable. Perhaps Vaillant's latest will test the patience of some readers in it for a quick fix, but persist with The Tiger and you will surely discover a terrific - and indeed timeless - tale.


The Tiger
by John Vaillant

UK Publication: September 2010, Sceptre
US Publication: August 2010, Knopf

Buy this book from
Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com /
IndieBound / The Book Depository

Recommended and Related Reading

Monday 22 November 2010

Out For The Count

So. I'm sick.

Not to make a crisis out of a drama or anything - I've only come down with a particularly vindictive flu bug - but I'm thinking it's safe to say I'm going to be out of it for the next couple of days: gobbling down bowl upon bowl of Vicks something-or-other while I bury my face in plates of steaming soup. Or... wait, I'm crossing my wires again, aren't I? :P

In any event, it's times like these I'm particularly thankful that I tend to keep a couple of reviews around from week to week as a sort of buffer. So you certainly won't go hungering for content - one snowbound Corvid, and one big cat's rampage coming right up! - though it mightn't be as timely as all that, you know. I'm sure you understand.

Anyway. Wish me well. I've got my inaugural end-of-the-year considerations to get started on as soon as, after all. Perhaps, in fact, this is an ideal opportunity for me to get caught up on a few of my more notable literary oversights. Under Heaven, anyone? The Desert Spear?

Here's hoping I can keep my eyes open long enough to get a little such reading done at the least...


Sunday 21 November 2010

The BoSS for 21/11/10

The scent of mistletoe's officially in the air - thanks in no small part to the Charlaine Harris-edited anthology featured in The BoSS this week - so I guess I can't be a Christmas denier much longer. Still, give me till the end of November! I've got (at least) The Half-Made World and the new N. K. Jemisin to get through before advent's upon us, and there's nowt festive about either of those. Tell you what: you keep your festivities for just a little while longer, and I'll have at a few choice fantasies - how about that?

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


A Discovery of Witches
by Deborah Harkness

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
03/02/11 by Headline

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "When historian Diana Bishop opens an alchemical manuscript in the Bodleian Library, it's an unwelcome intrusion of magic into her carefully ordered life. Though Diana is a witch of impeccable lineage, the violent death of her parents while she was still a child convinced her that human fear is more potent than any witchcraft. Now Diana has unwittingly exposed herself to a world she's kept at bay for years; one of powerful witches, creative, destructive daemons and long-lived vampires. Sensing the significance of Diana's discovery, the creatures gather in Oxford, among them the enigmatic Matthew Clairmont, a vampire genticist. Diana is inexplicably drawn to Matthew and, in a shadowy world of half-truths and old enmities, ties herself to him without fully understanding the ancient line they are crossing. As they begin to unlock the secrets of the manuscript and their feelings for each other deepen, so the fragile balance of peace unravels..."

Commentary: This arrived a little while ago, in actual fact. Just before my week in Krakov - I'm playing catch-up again! - and I would have gladly had away with it then were my luggage allowance a little more generous. Headling seem to be positioning A Discovery of Witches as the next big thing in paranormal romance, and though that realisation rather dampens my enthusiasm for supposed former historical fiction author Deborah Harkness' novel, I've read a little, and it feel more along the lines of Blake Charlton's Spellwright to me - which, you might recall, I rather adored.

Here's hoping!
One way or another, I'll have a review of this rather mammoth new shiny up on TSS well in advance of its release in February next year; and that's a promise I mean to keep.

by David Moody

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
28/10/09 by Gollancz

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "In less than twenty-four hours a vicious and virulent disease destroys virtually all of the population. Billions are killed. Thousands die every second. There are no symptoms and no warnings. Within moments of infection each victim suffers a violent and agonizing death. Only a handful of survivors remain. By the end of the first day those survivors wish they were dead. Then the disease strikes again, and all hell breaks loose..."

Commentary: Oh no. It's happened again! Autumn is the latest - well, not quite: it's the first in a series of old novels, republished thanks to Gollancz - from the dude what wrote Hater and Dog Blood, both of which I absolutely meant to read when they came through the door.

Damn it!

Well. Here's David Moody doing zombies - again; add to that, Autumn's a pretty short novel, so let's cross our fingers and hope the third time's the charm.

Pax Britannia: The Ulysses Quicksilver Omnibus
by Jonathan Green

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
11/11/10 by Abaddon

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "Ulysses Quicksilver, dandy, adventurer and agent of the throne. A steam-punk hero on a dark alternative universe where Queen Victoria has ruled for 160 years, sinister powers plot against the

"British Empire and dinosaurs roam the Challenger enclosure at London Zoo. This is the world of Magna Britannia, a brave new age of steam populated by heroes and villains, monsters and grotesques.

"Volume 1 in this series collect together the first three Ulysses Quicksilver novels: Unnatural History, Leviathan Rising and Human Nature."

Commentary: Hmm. Supposedly, Pax Britannia is spiffing stuff. We shall see - it certainly sounds interesting; foppish, steampunky fun, I'd guess - but if I'm honest, it'll probably be the new year before I can put aside to time to make it through this three-novel omnibus. Still and all, it's sweet and damned convenient of Abaddon to package up the Ulysses Quicksilver books the way they have.

The Broken Kingdoms
by N. K. Jemisin

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
04/11/10 by Orbit

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "In the city of Shadow, beneath the World Tree, alleyways shimmer with magic and godlings live hidden among mortalkind. Oree Shoth, a blind artist, takes in a homeless man who glows like a living sun to her strange sight. However, this act of kindness is to engulf Oree in a nightmarish conspiracy. Someone, somehow, is murdering godlings, leaving their desecrated bodies all over the city. Oree's peculiar guest is at the heart of it, his presence putting her in mortal danger - but is it him the killers want, or Oree? And is the earthly power of the Arameri king their ultimate goal, or have they set their sights on the Lord of Night himself?"

Commentary: Would you credit it? It seems I still have some catching up to do: though my lovely other half read and eventually adored The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, somehow, I ended up passing on my turn with N. K. Jemisin's debut once she was done.

Well, what better time to remedy that error than now!
Except, perhaps, once book three - which perhaps wrongly I presume will be the series' climax - is nearer to the horizon-line. Amazon's listing Kingdom of Gods as an October 2011 release. Mayhap I should hold off on reading volumes one and two till nearer then?
Or are these books another of the year's must-reads?

Best American Mystery Stories 2010
edited by Lee Child & Otto Penzler

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
01/11/10 by Corvus

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "Featuring twenty of the year's standout crime short stories handpicked by one of the world's best thriller writers, Best American Mystery Stories 2010 showcases not only the very best of the crime genre, but the best of American writing full stop. Within its pages, literary legends rub shoulders with the hottest new talent. Contributors in the past have included James Lee Burke, Jeffrey Deaver, Michael Connelly, Alice Munro and Joyce Carol Oates. This year's guest editor is Lee Child, the creator of Jack Reacher and a simultaneous bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic."

Commentary: So it is crime? Or is this mystery? These should be a lark in any event; a nice way for me to paddle in a pool I'm not, I'll readily confess, terribly familiar with at all. In particular, the Joyce Carol Oates - whose forthcoming collection Give Me Your Heart has been calling out to me for months already - appeals.

Safe to say, I think, I'll definitely be picking the latest Best American Mystery Stories up the next time I've had it up to here with and/or need a break from fantasy.

The Half-Made World
by Felix Gilman

Release Details:
Published in the US on
12/10/10 by Tor / Forge

Review Priority:
5 (Immediate)

Plot Synopsis: "The world is only half made. What exists has been carved out amidst a war between two rival factions: the Line, paving the world with industry and claiming its residents as slaves; and the Gun, a cult of terror and violence that cripples the population with fear. The only hope at stopping them has seemingly disappeared — the Red Republic that once battled the Gun and the Line, and almost won. Now they’re just a myth, a bedtime story parents tell their children, of hope.

"To the west lies a vast, uncharted world, inhabited only by the legends of the immortal and powerful Hill People, who live at one with the earth and its elements. Liv Alverhyusen, a doctor of the new science of psychology, travels to the edge of the made world to a spiritually protected mental institution in order to study the minds of those broken by the Gun and the Line. In its rooms lies an old general of the Red Republic, a man whose shattered mind just may hold the secret to stopping the Gun and the Line. And either side will do anything to understand how."

Commentary: Of all the books to have arrived with me for review this week, The Half-Made World is far and away the one I'm most looking forward to. I've heard great things, and this kind of post-collapse narrative really rubs me the right way. Sounds like The Road meets Mr Shivers: two of my very favourite novels of recent memory, don't you know. I've got a bit on my plate at the moment, but be sure of a review of this gorgeous looking, sounding and - am I imagining it? - smelling book before Christmas and the time for year's-best considerations is upon us.

Wolfsbane and Mistletoe
edited by Charlaine Harris & Toni L. P. Kelner

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
18/11/10 by Gollancz

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "We all know the holiday season can bring out the beast in anyone - but it's especially hard if you're a lycanthrope! Gathered here together is a veritable feast of fears and tears: fifteen of the scariest, saddest, funniest werewolf tales, by an outstanding pack of authors, best read by the light of the full moon, and with a silver bullet close at hand. In 'Gift Wrap', Sookie Stackhouse is feeling mighty sorry for herself, all alone for Christmas - until she meets someone with bigger problems than loneliness . . . Patricia Briggs gives us the story of lone wolf David Christiansen, who needs to mend fences with his daughter, before it's too late. In 'Christmas Past', Keri Arthur tells the tale of Hannah, who gets an unmerry and potentially life-threatening Christmas present when the hunky werewolf who dumped her last Christmas Eve turns up as her partner on the hunt for a vampire serial killer. All these and more feature in Wolfsbane and Mistletoe, the perfect antidote to Christmas mawkishness!"

Commentary: You know, I'm all for the anti-Xmas, so I certainly appreciate the sentiment behind this timely anthology. Sadly, however, the list of contributors to Wolfsbane and Mistletoe does nothing for me.

Maybe I'll read the Sookie thing. I'm probably kidding myself on, but hey, you never know. The festive spirit and all that. Sure enough the thing'll sell by the bucket-load whatever my disinterest.

Cheery note to leave things on for this week, eh? Well, you know... humbug! :D

Friday 19 November 2010

Book Review: The Quiet War by Paul McAuley

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Twenty-third century Earth, ravaged by climate change, looks backwards to the holy ideal of a pre-industrial Eden. Political power has been grabbed by a few powerful families and their green saints. Millions of people are imprisoned in teeming cities; millions more labour on Pharaonic projects to rebuild ruined ecosystems. On the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, the Outers, descendants of refugees from Earth's repressive regimes, have constructed a wild variety of self-sufficient cities and settlements: scientific utopias crammed with exuberant creations of the genetic arts; the last outposts of every kind of democratic tradition. The fragile detente between the Outer cities and the dynasties of Earth is threatened by the ambitions of the rising generation of Outers, who want to break free of their cosy, inward-looking pocket paradises, colonise the rest of the Solar System, and drive human evolution in a hundred new directions. On Earth, many demand pre-emptive action against the Outers before it's too late; others want to exploit the talents of their scientists and gene wizards. Amid campaigns for peace and reconciliation, political machinations, crude displays of military might, and espionage by cunningly wrought agents, the two branches of humanity edge towards war...


Let me tell you a story.

In the far-flung future, humanity has spread across the stars. Earth has very probably gone the way of the dodo: if it exists at all, it's a smoldering mess of a planet, barren, stricken, utterly bereft of life or the prospect thereof. We past generations have had our wicked, heathen way with the world, leaving our by-all-accounts more evolved descendants no choice but to venture further afield in order to survive. People have colonised distant planets, moons, built interstellar cruisers, fleets of space-liners. They have gone on.

But resources have become dangerously scarce. Despite centuries of peace, humanity has fallen back on fears it had thought long forgotten. Tensions are at an all-time high; factions squabble with one another; politicians bicker pointlessly. And then someone, somewhere, starts a fight. Like a rash of pimples, war breaks out.

Stop me if you've heard this one before, why don't you!

Evidently, Arthur C. Clarke award-winning author Paul McAuley has. The Quiet War - part the first of a duology concluded in this year's Gardens of the Sun - is smart, self-aware sci-fi from an author who's learned his lesson. It's a novel which takes as its refreshing core tenet not another interminable iteration of the same old space battles we've been reading about for decades - dare I say centuries - but the build-up to boiling point. McAuley's business in The Quiet War is the slow burn which leads to the titular conflict rather than the fast thrash of so much science fiction.

In Professor Doctor Sri-Hong Owen and "the traitor" Macy Minnot, McAuley offers up a pair of narrative chaperones - one on either side of the ever-escalating crisis. Macy is a reclamation engineer come to the Outer reaches of the galaxy that she might assist with the construction of a biome: an ambitious self-sustaining tented environment on Callisto seen by some as a generous gift from friendly elements in the Pacific Community's government who hope to foster peace, and by others among both strands of humanity as a golden opportunity to deposit a spanner in the works.

Sri, meanwhile, is more highly placed in society than Macy. A gene wizard to rival Avernus, who in her youth - after the great Overturn - pioneered the very technologies which made life so far from home sustainable, the Professor Doctor answers directly to the heads of the ominous and powerful "families" who domineer over the people of Earth like Mafioso prime ministers. She too becomes entangled in the ill-fated construction of the Callisto biome, and when, inevitably, the last hope for peace between the Outers and the Pacific Community comes crashing down, preparations for war begin in earnest. Neither Sri nor Macy wants war, but war it will be, and they must each pick a side. Says Avernus:

"In the past hundred years we have built a plenitude of societies founded on principals of tolerance, mutualism, scientific rationalism, and attempts at true democracy. And on Earth, people have united in common cause to heal the great wounds inflicted by the Overturn, climate change and two centuries of unchecked capitalism. I hoped to see these two worthy and hopeful strands of human history unite and go forward together as equals rather than rivals, sharing unselfishly the best of each other's abilities and achievements. But instead we have war."

The Quiet War isn't about exhilarating space battles or explosive action planetside. Presumably to keep those readers who hunger for such in check, there's a sprinkling of each in McAuley's novel, but The Quiet War is more concerned with the micro than the macro of Hamilton and Heinlein. Accordingly, there's a great deal of maneuvering: relentless propagandising from representatives of both quarters of belief, press-ganging to which both Sri and Macy are subject whatever their respective stations in life. Even when the hammer finally falls, we spend only a little time in the proverbial trenches, for the true climax of The Quiet War is a spirited standoff between Sri and Avernus, the gene wizards of each "strand of human history" united at last - and yet crucially at odds with one another. It makes for a quiet finale, but a perfect one, and perfectly appropriate according to the terms McAuley has established.

On the basis of this novel you could feasibly call Paul McAuley the K. J. Parker of sci-fi, for The Quiet War is interested in the politics of war over the war itself. Perhaps some less patient readers will take issue with that; perhaps, if I'm to be blunt, they can get their fix elsewhere. Those who appreciate a measure of thought in their science fiction will find much about McAuley's novel to like, if not to love - not quite. Sri and Macy are fine characters, a little overpowered by the narrative burden they share; McAuley's prose is fluid and rich in vivid imagery, though his fondness for info-dumping too often halts the tale in its tracks; The Quiet War raises a handful of fascinating questions not often addressed in the genre and addresses them meticulously while leaving enough unanswered to make Gardens of the Sun required reading for anyone taken in by McAuley's intimate rebuttal of space opera as we know it.


The Quiet War
by Paul McAuley

UK Publication: September 2009, Gollancz
US Publication: September 2009, Pyr

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