Thursday 28 July 2011

Book Review | Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine

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Come inside and take a seat; the show is about to begin...

Outside any city still standing, the Mechanical Circus Tresaulti sets up its tents. Crowds pack the benches to gawk at the brass-and-copper troupe and their impossible feats: Ayar the Strong Man, the acrobatic Grimaldi Brothers, fearless Elena and her aerialists who perform on living trapezes. War is everywhere, but while the Circus is performing, the world is magic. That magic is no accident: Boss builds her circus from the bones out, molding a mechanical company that will survive the unforgiving landscape. But even a careful ringmaster can make mistakes. Two of Tresaulti's performers are entangled in a secret standoff that threatens to tear the circus apart just as the war lands on their doorstep. Now the Circus must fight a war on two fronts: one from the outside, and a more dangerous one from within.


There are fantasy novels I love, space operas I adore, and horror stories that will haunt me till my dying day; there are tomes of magic and myth and mystery I don't expect I'll ever forget. Long story short, I'm an undiscriminating reader of speculative fiction -- and that's a fact I take heart in.


(You must have know there was a but coming...)

Among the many, one sub-genre - though perhaps I should rephrase, for I do not presume to have read of each and every one - one sub-genre among the many I've experience of, then, has left me cold on every occasion I've spent time with a book of its oeuvre. Perhaps I've just been reading the wrong books... perhaps it's as simple as that. Yet I began to suspect that I'd finally met my match: that steampunk and I were simply, sadly, never going to get on.

It wasn't that the idea of steampunk didn't do it for me, either. Quite the contrary: the notion of worlds and people remade according to anachronistic laws and technologies delighted me. The thought of pitching the irreversible crawl of progress via industry and enterprise in another direction entirely appealed on a level precious few premises tend to. That the idea of steampunk excites the reader in me I am not at all ashamed to admit, but in practice... alas. Till now, all the steampunk I'd given the time of day to felt more about the tech and the time than the tale or its texture; all cogs and wheels and divots where there should have been characters to care about, arcs to invest my interest in.

Then I read Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine, and all that changed.

The company has been travelling for what feels like forever. Perhaps it has been -- after all, "the circus makes an enemy of time." Led on a lazy circuit around a world of "children raised up on roots and scrounge-meat" where some far-distant day there may again be merit in a school - a vast continent of countless governments at war with one another and themselves - if the Circus Tresaulti and its machine/man/animals acts are not welcomed in every place they pitch their tents, then at least they are free to come and go with little outside interference, for "a circus always finds a home; everyone wants a show."

And theirs is a show like none other, such that the very "life of a city flickers and trembles when they are near." The circus' enigmatic ringmaster Boss - an ageless woman whose ability to breathe new life into tired old acts by way of leftover metals is both a gift and a curse - has made sure of that, embellishing those waifs and strays who come to Tresaulti to escape the forever war raging around them with such parts and roles as to make new people of them. "Their real names don't matter; no one in the circus is real any more," so they are Bird and Stenos and Elena and Ayar; the Grimaldi Brothers, Alto and Altissimo; the aerialists Ming and Penna and Ying; Big Tom and Big George, the living trapezes; and Little George - just George at the last - who tells the tale.

That is, Little George tells the tale insofar as any one character does. As it happens, Mechanique is a tale told in the first and the second and the third person, in tenses past, present and future. Stylistically, and so narratively, Genevieve Valentine's astonishing debut can be a challenging thing -- hard to get a handle on, especially at the outset, when spread all around the reader there is a staggering array of such sights and sounds as to practically overmaster one's imagination. But through it all, Little George is our foothold; chronological and largely uncomplicated, his is certainly the most traditional path of narrative through the events of Mechanique, though I do not know if it is the most powerful, for those fleeting glimpses we are allowed of Bird and Boss are haunting... breathtaking... beautiful in a way very few voices could capture.

In any event Valentine seems to have little interest in tradition, in the art of storytelling as we have been given - perhaps mistakenly - to understand it. She comes at things from a million angles, with an attitude wholeheartedly her own, and at a pace I expect some readers may take issue with. Mechanique will be their loss. It is true that Valentine takes her sweet time setting the scene and arranging the stage for the entertainments to come, but one's introductions to all and sundry in the company are a redoubtable delight, and the Circus Tresaulti a thing of blistering, black-blooded wonder.

Perhaps there's something to the fact that the Circus Tresaulti began its whistle-stop tour in several short stories published in Fantasy Magazine and Beneath Ceaseless Skies (all of which you can read for free here). Assuredly the sense of the episodic carries through the first half of Mechanique and in some senses beyond, and so too does the self-containedness of many of the eighty-odd chapters speak to the abbreviated origins of this far grander narrative, but though Valentine communicates her debut's essential character in an unusual way, her weaving together of all these assorted strands is a supermassive success; her carefully-wrought words and workings so fine and precise as to guarantee it is not merely some happy accident that Mechanique works so very well.

Whether Mechanique is a collection of loosely connected episodes in the life and times of a travelling circus and its oddment of performers, or a single story with a fistful of distinct threads enmeshed together, I would argue it matters little. And there can be no disputing that the ringside seats Valentine arranges for us around this unforgettable parade of "clockwork coquettes" and strongman machines are a marvel. We are so close to the action as to scent the mingled stink of sweat and sawdust and sweet treats in the air; to hear "the sound of feathers singing" as every bone in the wings sewn to the spine of Alec the flying man arrives at an impossible harmony; to gape up at and around and through every last incredible act, as if we were ourselves a part of them.

Truly, madly, deeply, readers: this first full-length Tale of the Circus Tresaulti moved me immeasurably. Here's to many more where it came from -- which is to say, from the mind of one of the most promising new voices in all genre fiction. Not since discovering the work of Catherynne M. Valente have I been so excited about a second novel; that for her first Genevieve Valentine has conjured such a masterpiece of measure and imagination as this - the performance of a lifetime! - speaks volumes as to why I may finally have fallen for steampunk.


Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti
by Genevieve Valentine

UK Publication: May 2011, Prime Books

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Recommended and Related Reading


Tuesday 26 July 2011

Video Game Review | Alice: Madness Returns, dev. Spicy Horse

In the year of our overlord 2000, video game name American McGee let loose what is remembered today as his greatest creation - American McGee's Alice - pioneering in some senses the darker take on Lewis Carroll's stir-crazy cutie-pie that has come to proliferate since. With Alice: Madness Returns, McGee aims to take his profoundly disturbed idea of Alice back.

But reality bites - even those characters to whom reality matters not one whit - and it's been eleven years since American McGee's Alice. Truth be told, I think those of us who've returned to that fondly-recalled PC platformer have found, on reflection, our memories of McGee's weird and wonderful Wonderland rather rose-tinted. Perhaps the original game was an eye-opening experience in its day - certainly its unconventional use of the Quake engine set a standard for today's more flexible game tech - but I dare say it's day has come and gone and gone again. The very idea that more than a decade on there would be a sequel to American McGee's Alice quite boggles the mind, in fact, so the question one has to ask is: is Alice in any way relevant today?

Well, yes and no. Alice: Madness Returns makes a confused case for either answer. It has its moments - I'd even argue it has too many moments - but there is nevertheless an overwhelming air of the average about it. McGee's Shanghai-based studio Spicy Horse didn't make the best first impression with their work on the execrable episodic Grimm games, and though Alice: Madness Returns is more competent by and large, more acceptable in technical terms, still it feels a long way from the standards of the industry today. This would have been a brilliant PlayStation 2 game; unfortunately, on current-gen consoles it looks cheap and sharp where it should be clean and preened.

In design terms, however, it's superb. Alice: Madness Returns has the "princess" Disney co-opted venture deeper and deeper into her ruined psyche, by way of five long chapters encompassing a Wonderland progressively infected. From the vibrancy of Wonderland proper through the elaborate steampunk mechanisms of the Mad Hatter's Domain; from the aquatic delights of the Deluded Depths through the Okami-esque finery of the Oriental Grove, and on to the Dollhouse with its abused-looking babies by way of Queensland, where the world is fashioned from spades and diamonds and clubs and - yes - hearts, every stage of Alice: Madness Returns has its own distinct aesthetic, each of which seems a delicious, even nutritious treat.

At least they do to begin with. Alas, Alice overstays her welcome in every iteration of Wonderland, and we with her. One begins to see how a precious few graphical assets have been duplicated ad nauseam through each environment... how landscapes and layouts are repurposed from one room to the next... and just as the look of Alice: Madness Returns bends back on itself, like the Cheshire Cat chasing his own tail, so too do limited and moreover limiting play mechanics become, because of nigh-on endless repetition, their own worst enemy, for the moment-to-moment experience of Alice: Madness Returns can be boiled down to two scant pursuits: combat and platforming.

For a time, you will use Alice's triple-jump (and float) to make your way through the environments, across impossible chasms and along narrow ledges. You're also able to shrink in size at any point, which mechanic is largely employed in the pursuit of meaningless collectibles, of which there an insufferable number. So you jump and float and shrink and smash your way through Wonderland, destroying as much of it as you go as you rebuild, and when that begins to seem interminable - or indeed long since it has - you are deposited in a suspiciously arena-esque room where a handful of admittedly imaginative minions boil up out of the ground like Angelina Jolie in Beowulf to pick on our pool li'l princess, bearing hammers and axes and breath a la acid reflux. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to use the Vorpal Blade, a mean-looking Hobby Horse, a Pepper Mill and a Tea-kettle Cannon to fend off all comers. You can also dodge, which momentarily turns Alice into a lovely gust of butterflies, and deflect projectiles using her umbrella.

The combat in Alice: Madness Returns is actually pretty solid: complex, if far from nuanced, and challenging, though only till certain patterns are made plain. There are too a fair assortment of enemies - a few unique beasts and creatures to face off against in every stage - but you have to figure out their particular weaknesses the first time you fight them, and thereafter, once you've nailed the specific dance of dodge and thrust or shoot and strafe such-an-such a challenger demands, it feels rather rote. Ordinary and altogether functional -- like the padding of a Victorian lunatic's room, I would say if I were prone to impropriety... but then his Madness the Hatter wouldn't approve of that, so we'll stick with rote.

Traversal, too, sometimes comes a cropper of ill-advised implementation. I mean, sure, I'll take your punishingly precise platforming sections - I ain't too cool for Zool, no Sir! - but when you present them thus, with finicky twitch controls and some cruel and unusual checkpointing, in this day and age I am, I think, entitled to take issue. Even then, this and these are not issues I would give a great deal credence to, were it not for the fact that Alice: Madness Returns goes on for far, far, far, far - perhaps you start to see what I mean - just far too long. In time both the platforming and the combat come to be absurdly magnified, so that every last little issue has become an incredible annoyance when Spicy Horse finally gives the player leave to return to the relieving dreariness of reality.

In the fullness of time, the single most problematic aspect of Alice: Madness Returns is revealed to be not its questionable legacy, or the currency (or not) of its contemporary relevancy, nor even its archaic technology, but its boundless protractedness. If it were half the game it is, I'd give it... if not a free pass exactly, then no more than a yellow card. Alice: Madness Returns only has a few tricks up its sleeve, but I'll give it this: they're good tricks. Shame American McGee and his studio thought they could play the very same tricks over and over again, and promptly call it a day. Fool me once and all that. Fool me a hundred hundred times, on the other hand, and you'll find my patience thinner than thinner.

Monday 25 July 2011

We Interrupt This Broadcast | Out of Office, Educating

Some of you might remember that I started tutoring kids in English earlier this year. Strictly on a part-time basis, you know... a couple of hours here and a couple of hours there, as and when.

Well, it went well.

Much to my surprise, I suppose, it went very well indeed. And it will again, but over the summer - understandably - there aren't enough students to warrant a class, so my sideline in tutoring is on hold till term resumes...

...however. As I understand it, it's come time for the folks in charge of the education centres I've been moonlighting for to update their teaching materials; they're hoping to inject a little more energy, more relevance, more creativity into the curriculum, and for some undefinable reason, they think I might be the man for the job. One of the men, I should say -- one of the people, even.

So, long story short, I've been invited to spend this coming week in the city, helping to conceptualise and thereafter create teaching materials for English students working at the Standard Grade level. This is not normal for me; I'm lucky enough to be able to work from home through most of the year. But this isn't the sort of opportunity you can say no to, however much of a guddle it will in all likelihood be.

Which is to say, things might be a bit quiet on the blog front, this week and the beginning of next. I've been beavering away at a couple of reviews these last few days to tide you all over between now and a week on Wednesday, so there's that, but forgive me if I'm not as quick on the draw as usual in other respects.

Anyway, I should really head off already, so... wish me luck!

And still more important than that, get busy reading while I'm AFK and the weather's still with us. I had just the loveliest afternoon the other day, devouring Raising Stony Mayhall in the sun. Would that I could be out there again now, with another book...

...alas. Education calls. Just remember: it's all in service of the wee Scottish bookworms of tomorrow. I'm only leaving you - and only momentarily at that - for the sake of our children, and our children's children! ;)

Sunday 24 July 2011

Books Received | The BoSS for 24/07/11

Well would you look at that: it seems to be ladies' day here on The BoSS, with five wonderful-looking new books received for review from five very promising female authors! And people complain that women don't get a look in...

Then again, would I have thought to say it was men's day if the proverbial pump were on the other foot? I think not, no... hmm.

While we're hmming, why don't we see what some of the good ladies of genre fiction have to offer this fine day?


Two Worlds and In Between: The
Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan (Volume One)
by You-Know-Who

Vital Statistics
Published in the US
on 31/08/11
by Subterranean Press

Review Priority
5 (A Sure Thing)

The Blurb: Caitlin R. Kiernan's short fiction was first published in 1995. Over the intervening decade and a half, she has proven not only one of dark fantasy and science fiction's most prolific and versatile authors, but, to quote Ramsey Campbell, "One of the most accomplished writers in the field, and very possibly the most lyrical." S. T. Joshi has written, "Kiernan's witchery of words creates a mesmerizing effect that we haven't seen since the days of Lovecraft and Bradbury."

Two Worlds and In Between: The Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan (Volume One) presents a stunning retrospective of the first ten years of her work, a compilation of more than two hundred thousand words of short fiction, including many of her most acclaimed stories, as well as some of the author's personal favorites, several previously uncollected, hard-to-find pieces, and her sf novella, The Dry Salvages, and a rare collaboration with Poppy Z. Brite. Destined to become the definitive look at the early development of Kiernan's work, Two Worlds and In Between is a must for fans and collectors alike, as well as an unprecedented introduction to an author who, over the course of her career, has earned the praise of such luminaries as Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub, Charles De Lint, and Clive Barker.

My Thoughts: A little (personal) history lesson, before we begin: I've followed the course of Caitlin R. Kiernan's career ever since Silk came out in 1998, when I was but a miserable little Scotch goth. In that time, there have been ups, and there have been downs. I've found, for instance, that reading any two or more of Kiernan's novels back-to-back is rather a Bad Idea. The repetition of themes and ideas starts to wear one out; the recurrence of dreams inside of nightmares as if that were in any sense the same thing as resolution takes its toll.

In fact I'd imagined myself pretty much done with Caitlin R. Kiernan after one such literary binge... and then The Red Tree came along - not so very different at all, but different enough - to remind me of so much of what I once loved about her body of work. So it should be interesting, to say the least, to see how well some of this criminally unappreciated author's best-remembered short stories hold up, not least versus my own memory of them. Given how extensively Kiernan tends to edit her earlier work whenever the opportunity arises, I should imagine Two World and In Between will be as new to me as is nostalgic.

Now my review, when it's written, will be for Strange Horizons rather than The Speculative Scotsman. That said, if there's enough interest, I'm sure I could put together a Short Fiction Corner or something for you all in the interim?

The Somnambulist
by Essie Fox

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 26/05/11
by Orion

Review Priority
3 (We'll See)

The Blurb: 'Some secrets are better left buried...'

When seventeen-year old Phoebe Turner visits Wilton's Music Hall to watch her Aunt Cissy performing on stage, she risks the wrath of her mother Maud who marches with the Hallelujah Army, campaigning for all London theatres to close. While there, Phoebe is drawn to a stranger, the enigmatic Nathaniel Samuels who heralds dramatic changes in the lives of all three women. When offered the position of companion to Nathaniel's reclusive wife, Phoebe leaves her life in London's East End for Dinwood Court in Herefordshire - a house that may well be haunted and which holds the darkest of truths.

In a gloriously gothic debut, Essie Fox weaves a spellbinding tale of guilt and deception, regret and lost love. 

My Thoughts: Gosh, but I do appreciate a little spooky Victoriana from time to time, and what was the last such novel I read? The Anatomy of Ghosts? Was it really so long ago as that?

Well, I'm late to this particular party, too. But coming to The Somnambulist a couple months after its initial release, at least I come bearing in mind the goodwill that's greeted Essie Fox's first novel. Wouldn't want to waste my bi-annual indulgence on a disappointment, now would I? The Somnambulist looks to be anything but.

Mechanique: A Tale of
the Circus Tresaulti
by Genevieve Valentine

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 10/05/11
by Prime Books

Review Priority
5 (A Sure Thing)

The Blurb: Come inside and take a seat; the show is about to begin...

Outside any city still standing, the Mechanical Circus Tresaulti sets up its tents. Crowds pack the benches to gawk at the brass-and-copper troupe and their impossible feats: Ayar the Strong Man, the acrobatic Grimaldi Brothers, fearless Elena and her aerialists who perform on living trapezes. War is everywhere, but while the Circus is performing, the world is magic. That magic is no accident: Boss builds her circus from the bones out, molding a mechanical company that will survive the unforgiving landscape.

But even a careful ringmaster can make mistakes. Two of Tresaulti's performers are entangled in a secret standoff that threatens to tear the circus apart just as the war lands on their doorstep. Now the Circus must fight a war on two fronts: one from the outside, and a more dangerous one from within.

My Thoughts: I love the circus, me. And I love a good story, of course. So what better alchemy, then, than a good story about the circus?

Geek Love, anyone? 

Anyway, Mechanique is Genevieve Valentine's first novel, but I've actually read some of her short fiction already - some short fiction related to this Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, come to that - and found therein the glimmers of what could be an incredible talent. It remains to be seen just what Valentine might make of the longer form, but I've very high hopes.

The House of Discarded Dreams
by Ekaterina Sedia

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 01/09/11
by Prime Books

Review Priority
4 (Pretty Bloody Likely)

The Blurb: Trying to escape her embarrassing immigrant mother, Vimbai moves into a dilapidated house in the dunes... and discovers that one of her new room-mates has a pocket universe instead of hair, there's a psychic energy baby living in the telephone wires, and her dead Zimbabwean grandmother is doing dishes in the kitchen. When the house gets lost at sea and creatures of African urban legends all but take it over, Vimbai turns to horseshoe crabs in the ocean to ask for their help in getting home to New Jersey.
My Thoughts: And from one tremendously promising new-to-me novelist to another, courtesy the very same publisher: Prime Books.

Ekaterina Sedia is a name I've heard spoken of in hushed whispers as often as ungodly shouts, and though I've never read her before myself, the word from those bloggers whose judgement I trust is that I might have a real treat ahead of me here. The House of Discarded Dreams sounds absolutely batty, but sometimes that's exactly what the doctor ordered. Here's hoping!

The Necklace of the Gods
by Alison Goodman

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 26/05/11
by Bantam Press

Review Priority
3 (We'll See)

The Blurb: Once she was Eon, a girl disguised as a boy, risking her life for the chance to become a Dragoneye apprentice. Now she is Eona, thrust into the role of her country’s saviour.

But Eona has an even more dangerous secret — she cannot control her power. When she tries to bond with her Mirror Dragon, the anguish of the ten spirit beasts whose Dragoneyes were murdered surges through her. The result: a killing force that destroys everything before it. On the run from High Lord Sethon’s army, Eona and her friends must help the Pearl Emperor, Kygo, wrest back his throne. Everyone is relying on Eona’s power. Can she face her own darkness within, and drive a dangerous bargain with an old enemy? A wrong move could obliterate them all.

Against a thrilling backdrop of explosive combat, ruthless power struggles and exotic lore, Eona is the gripping story of a remarkable warrior who must find the strength to walk a deadly line between truth and justice. Full of pulse-racing drama, heart-stirring romance, dazzling fight scenes, and myriad surprises, The Necklace of the Gods brings this extraordinarily imagined and exciting fantasy epic to a resounding climax.

My Thoughts: Sequel to The Two Pearls of Wisdom - which (wouldn't you know it) I also have a review copy of - The Necklace of the Gods isn't, I'll admit, a book I would have looked twice at before. But that was before. And I was pretty much blown away by Queen of Kings. This pseudo-historical series excites much the same appetite in me.

On the other hand, nice as it is to have a complete duology on hand to indulge in whenever I might fancy a story told from start to finish, I have to wonder if Alison Goodman might not come a cropper in the comparison with Maria Dahvana Headley. Certainly there are Amazon reviewers who've come away from this concluding volume disappointed. One writes: "I don't think I have ever read such a compellingly written book (or series) with such an appalling ending." And keen as I am, that makes me nervous.

Anyone else read these?


Oh, good show! I don't know that there's been a stronger week of The BoSS all year. Coincidence? Actually, no, I don't think it is.

But we'll save that chat for another day. Meantime, what would your picks be from the excellent selection on offer today? Or is there something else - something I've missed - that's been occupying your every thought? Do tell...

Till next time, then!

Saturday 23 July 2011

The Scotsman Abroad | Starburst For A Darkening Island

When it comes to staying current with all the Next Big Things publishers put out every month, it's often hard enough just to keep your head above the waterline. All the huge new releases, whether they be debuts from literary stars on the rise or the much-anticipated subsequent volumes of one or another of the hundred series I seem to have ended up reading - quite despite my most noble intentions - it can be tough, sometimes, just to doggie-paddle through the now.

Tough enough that there seems precious little time left to spend looking back, as I'd like to, and tough enough that there's nary a moment left to piddle away looking forward, into the sweet wondrous dream of what's yet to come.

All of which is to say, forgive my ignorance: I'm sure there are an incredible number of books coming out through the rest of 2011 that have either slipped my mind or I straight-up haven't heard of. But of those forthcoming releases that I am anticipating, from here in my fortress of witless ignorance, uppermost amongst them - that is alongside the first volumes of IQ84 by Haruki Murakami - has to be The Islanders by Christopher Priest... who I imagine most folks are familiar with in large part because Priest wrote the book a certain other Christopher (Nolan) based The Prestige on.

But Christopher (Priest) has been publishing books since 1970. That's for more than forty years! And last month - perhaps you'll recall from this installment of The BoSS - I was pleased to receive a review copy of Gollancz' revised edition of his second novel, Fugue For A Darkening Island -- the first of his works to be nominated for the raft of awards he would later take home.

Unsurprisingly, it was awesome. What's doubly awesome is that my review of Fugue For A Darkening Island is now available for you all to read, should you like your appetites for The Islanders whetting some. Trebly awesome, then, that this is the review with which I'm making my debut in the pages of Starburst Magazine.

Starburst, for those of you who don't know - for shame on all your houses! - was a popular print magazine launched in 1978. 2009 marked its 365th monthly issue which was also, alas, its last to hit newsstands.

At least, that's what they want you to think! In fact, two years on, Starburst is back -- and not so much changed, despite being free and online now, rather than a paid publication for magazine racks and the like.

For myself, I was yay high when I bought my first issue of Starburst, and I kept right on subscribing through to the bittersweet end. Starburst Magazine wasn't my first or my last, exactly, but it was among my utmost, so it gives me tremendous pleasure to see it risen like the proverbial phoenix and so completely re-energised by its new form...

...and now - hold onto your horses - with extra added me! :)

I know, I know... they've no idea what they've let themselves in for, have they?

Anyway, go read the review of Fugue For a Darkening Island while I explode in a confetti fashioned from shreds of cheer and sheer glee.

Thursday 21 July 2011

Book Review | Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham

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Max "the Wolf" is a top notch Boy Scout, an expert at orienteering and a master of being prepared. So it is a little odd that he suddenly finds himself, with no recollection of his immediate past, lost in an unfamiliar wood. Even odder still, he encounters a badger named Banderbrock, a black bear named Walden, and McTavish the Monster (who might also be an old barn cat) - all of whom talk - and who are as clueless as Max.

Before long, Max and his friends are on the run from a relentless group of hunters and their deadly hounds. Armed with powerful blue swords and known as the Blue Cutters, these hunters capture and change the very essence of their prey. For what purpose, Max can’t guess. But unless he can solve the mystery of the strange forested world he’s landed in, Max may find himself and his friends changed beyond recognition, lost in a lost world...


Fables may be among the most successful new comics of the millennium... though we have barely made a dent in it yet. Nevertheless, next year will mark the tenth anniversary of its first issue, and in the mean-spirited climate which has made these past years so dreary, the notion of any comic book lasting so long - never mind maintaining the level of originality and ingenuity Fables demonstrates on a monthly basis - well. That such a quality product can not only survive through these hard years but thrive does much to assuage one's anxiety that the readers of today and tomorrow want little more than the same again... and again... and again.

And again. 

So it should be a matter of some celebration that Fables creator Bill Willingham shows no sign of selling out, stopping, or even slowing down. For that, may he - and all of his - live long and prosper.

Evidently, Willingham had his share of less prosperous times too. Few tend to remember that he worked in the industry for a long while before Fables finally capitalised on his talents, and then, as now - what with last year's lovely Peter and Max prose novel - his scripts proved perfectly transferable. Originally published on the eve of his breakthrough success, to ashamedly little notice I might add, Down the Mysterly River is a short and indelibly sweet fantasy for middle-grade readers, and though I cannot speak to how substantially revised this new edition is, Willingham himself acknowledges the brushing off of a decade's worth of dust and some general "sprucing up" (p.333).

But far and away the single biggest selling point of Starscape's timely reprint of Down the Mysterly River, besides rendering a costly collector's item more readily accessible, is the enlisting of once and future Fables artist Mark Buckingham to provide a striking new cover design and illustrate an array of charming chapter headings. Though I'd have liked to see still more from Buckingham, his part in the success of this new and improved reissue cannot be undervalued.

Down the Mysterly River pre-empts Fables in more ways than one: just as its initial release paved the way for Willingham's eventual success, so too does its text reflect a great many of the themes and fascinations the crossover author would later address in the comic which made him a household name -- among households so inclined, that is. Down the Mysterly River has talking animals, an eternal war with an ominous adversary, some outright meta moments, and the very sense of boundless energy and invention which in time came to typify Fables.

"Max the Wolf was a wolf in exactly the same way that foothills are made up of real feet and a tiger shark is part tiger, which is to say, not at all. Max was in fact a boy, between twelve and thirteen years old, and entirely human. He was dressed in a Boy Scout uniform." (p.13) So begins this would-be boy detective's latest and greatest adventure. Awakening in a strange land, with no memory of how he got there, or why the perilous forest encroaching on all sides seems to speak, or where he should go to be reunited with his family and friends, Max is lucky to find in the woodland creatures a few unlikely allies: Banderbrock the warrior badger, a flea-bitten monster called McTavish - a cat of course - and last but not least, Walden, a gentle grizzly with the heart of a hero.

Like Max, none of these unlikely acquaintances can recall how they got to the forest, but the mystery must wait, for they are soon set upon by the Cutters: a legion of bandit Lords and Ladies who aim to slice new lives into the essential stuff of Max and his companions... for their own good, needless to say. Being the brains of the bunch, it falls to our Boy Scout to figure out the how, the why and the where of this picturesque place where myth and legend seem to meet -- all the while staying one step ahead of the Cutters, else they bring his desperate quest to an abrupt end.

Redwall by way of The Wizard of Oz, if you will, Bill Willingham fairly wears his inspiration on his sleeves in Down the Mysterly River, and there's no harm in that at all. It may not make for so seamless a hybrid of new and old as Fables came in time to represent, yet it has its charms; for instance its innocence is absolute, and its magic clearly derived from the light side rather than the dark.

In fact, for the first two thirds, Down the Mysterly River is a downright delight. As fine and fairweather a fable as any. However, a dreadful deus ex machina makes short work of the summary conclusion, substituting what seems self-satisfied chortling where there should be closure. So too does Down the Mysterly River seem pitched for a follow-up - or a few - yet in the decade since its small press publication, the further adventures of Max the Wolf and his merry band of animals have not been forthcoming.

Perhaps Starscape's reissue will serve to drum up enough interest in the endearing characters and the weird but wonderful world they find themselves stranded in to justify such a thing. I pray it will, for though Down the Mysterly River certainly has its spoilsport issues - and it is particularly unfortunate that so many of them arise in the narrative's last-most moments, leaving something of a sour taste in their wake - such are its charms, on the other hand, that if Bill Willingham has another tale of Max the Wolf and the Wizard Swift in him, I'd be settled around the the camp-fire to hear it told like the last boy scout on Earth.


Down the Mysterly River
by Bill Willingham

US Publication: September 2011, Starscape Books

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Wednesday 20 July 2011

Press Release Your Luck | Gollancz's Gateway to SF

When just a few weeks ago Gollancz announced that a significantly updated edition of ye olde print reference tome The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction would be made available to all comers on the internets at no charge, I'll admit: excited as I was about the prospect of One Resource To Rule Them All - which is exactly what I imagine this definitive third edition of the encyclopedia will represent - I did wonder where their margins were.

Were Gollancz undertaking this behemothic endeavour just to curry favour with the genre community? Or would it be monetised, somehow?

Well, now we know. This press release just arrived in my inbox:

Gollancz, the SF and Fantasy imprint of the Orion Publishing Group, announces the launch of the world’s largest digital SFF library, the SF Gateway, which will make thousands of out-of-print titles by classic genre authors available as eBooks.

Building on the remarkable success of Gollancz’s Masterworks series, the SF Gateway will launch this Autumn with more than a thousand titles by close to a hundred authors. It will build to 3,000 titles by the end of 2012, and 5,000 or more by 2014. Gollancz’s Digital Publisher Darren Nash, who joined the company in September 2010 to spearhead the project said, “The Masterworks series has been extraordinarily successful in republishing one or two key titles by a wide range of authors, but most of those authors had long careers in which they wrote dozens of novels which had fallen out of print. It seemed to us that eBooks would offer the ideal way to make them available again. This realization was the starting point for the SF Gateway.” Wherever possible, the SFGateway will offer the complete backlist of the authors included.

The SF Gateway will be closely integrated with the recently announced new online edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which provides an independent and definitive reference source of information on the authors and books included. Direct links between the Encyclopedia and the Gateway will provide easy access to eBook editions, for sale through all major online retailers.

The Gateway site will also act as a major community hub and social network for SF readers across the world, allowing them to interact with each other and recommend titles and authors. The site is planned to include forums, blogs, regular promotions, and is envisaged to become the natural home on the net for anyone with an interest in classic SFF.

Authors featured in the launch include such names as Marion Zimmer Bradley, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, Alice B. Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr), Robert Silverberg, Kate Wilhelm and Connie Willis. A full list of authors so far under contract is appended to this announcement; negotiations are in anadvanced state for many more. 

The announcement in its entirety can be found here.

In short, then, when it arrives, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction will come hand-in-hand with a second site, SF Gateway, which looks to have its hooks deep in the encyclopedia: where possible, articles in the latter will include links to related eBooks made available through the budding marketplace of the former. Which roundly answers my earlier question.

Nor, by the sounds of it, is SF Gateway merely some genre-oriented shopfront. It also has designs on providing this community we're all a part of in one way or another with a social network tailor-made to our needs: a gathering place along the lines of Suduvu and and of course the Westeros forums.

And I'm all for that. Come to that, I'm all for all of this... depending on a couple of little things.

Which is to say: depending of course on the still-TBD implementation of these two prongs - depending, in other words, on how passive or invasive this interlinking proves to be when the time comes, and furthermore whether or not the content of the enclyclopedia is in any way, shape or form governed by those eBooks the SF Gateway will sell - taken together, these two bold new ventures sketch the outline of what could come in time to be a single indispensable resource. And if any one publisher in the UK is better positioned to make a go of such a thing than Gollancz, I haven't heard of it.

So it's good news, everybody!

Are we all agreed?


Update 18:00

Quick as that, our man in Gollancz - that is to say deputy publishing director Simon Spanton - got back to me to allay whatever concerns I may have had about how the relationship between the encyclopedia and SF Gateway might jeopardise the form and/or content of either endeavour, or both. He's what Simon had to say:

A condition of the SFEncy accepting our support in going online was the absolute maintenance of their editorial independence. Nor have any considerations about inclusion of titles on SFGateway been influenced by the content of the SFEncy. Linked and integrated they may be but the independence of the projects is too key to their value for there to be any consideration of moving away from that independence.

So let's keep this quick: fly away, my fears! :)

Couldn't be happier to see 'em off, either.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Book Review | Bioshock: Rapture by John Shirley

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It's the end of World War II. FDR's New Deal has redefined American politics. Taxes are at an all-time high. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has brought a fear of total annihilation. The rise of secret government agencies and sanctions on business has many watching their backs. America's sense of freedom is diminishing... and many are desperate to take there freedom back.

Among them is a great dreamer, an immigrant who pulled himself from the depths of poverty to become one of the wealthiest and admired men in the world. That man is Andrew Ryan, and he believed that great men and women deserve better. And so he set out to create the impossible, a utopia free from government, censorship, and moral restrictions on science -- where what you give is what you get. He created Rapture: the shining city below the sea.

But as we all know, this utopia suffered a great tragedy. This is the story of how it all came to be... and how it all ended.


Whether or not you play video games, you'll have heard of Bioshock, I bet. Somebody, at some point, simply must have told you all about Rapture, the great city under the sea which rose to impossible heights in the thrifty 50s before falling to cataclysmic lows only a few years later. This is that story.

Perhaps you know about Little Sisters and Big Daddies, too: the creepy, dead-eyed little girls with their syringes for extracting ADAM from bodies littered about the city, and the behemothic monsters clad in old-school diving suits who kept them company wherever they went. Certainly they proved an iconic pairing; in fact, I have a figurine of one of the latter on my mantelpiece.

But then, I would, because I loved Bioshock.

Is it the best game of all time? I don't know... I haven't played every last one, have I? But I'll say this, in no uncertain terms: the most meaningful experience I've ever had with a console controller in hand, I had while playing Bioshock. So I come to Bioshock: Rapture with great expectations. Yet hand in hand with every expectation, I bring an equal and opposite sense of trepidation, in part as a result of lessons learnt from Bioshock 2 -- a perfectly adequate sequel to the original ground-breaking game which nevertheless demonstrated that more of the same good thing isn't always a good thing. Bioshock 2 asked if lightning could strike twice. Turned out... not so much.

Maybe the third time's the charm, then?

Assuredly, with Bioshock: Rapture in the capable hands of Bram Stoker Award-winning genre author John Shirley, who previously novelised the silver screen adaptation of the comic book Constantine, there's every reason to think so. And Bioshock: Rapture begins very much in that mode. In an exceedingly smart move - the first of several testaments to the author's understanding of the craft (if not the art) of cross-media storytelling - Shirley opts not to retell the tale of the video game, of a city under the sea already in ruins, but rather expand upon than pre-history alluded to throughout Irrational's masterpiece, of Rapture's incredible rise.

"At first it was an experiment. Little more than a hypothesis - a game. I already have the drawings for a smaller version - but it could be bigger. Much bigger! It is the solution to a gigantic problem..." (p.15)

Shirley's wisdom is also evident in his decision to place the burden of this narrative on the shoulders of a lesser-known figure from the Bioshock mythos: rather than the lunatic visionary Andrew Ryan or his entrepreneurial adversary Frank Fontaine, or even Jack - the player character in the game proper - Shirley selects handyman Bill McDonagh as protagonist of Bioshock: Rapture. A down-on-his-luck plumber when we meet him, McDonagh is instrumental in the events leading up to the experiment's untimely conclusion, yet only a tertiary figure in the narrative as it has been established. Seeing in him a certain shared spirit, Andrew Ryan raises McDonagh up and up so that he becomes the practical mind behind the undersea city that is his dizzying dream. 

Bill McDonagh essentially becomes Ryan's conscience: he helps Rapture's own God among men see reason when his ideas and ideals threaten to bring this wondrous new world of their creation down around them; he acts as a go-between for Ryan and Fontaine (of Fisheries and Futuristics fame); and when it turns out that "Not everyone can start their own business. And if they do, who'll clean the toilets?" (p.265) and Ryan promptly leaps off the deep end, it is McDonagh who tries to bring him back down to earth. But as with Rapture, McDonagh's rises comes at a grave cost.

In fact - spoilers off the starboard bow! - Bill McDonagh dies at the end.

Come to that, McDonagh is dead and buried (though I suppose I would not swear to that latter) well before the events the first game chronicles have even begun. If you played Bioshock back in the day, you'll know that. If not... shame on you! What are you even thinking, reading this when there's a perfectly incredible game ready and willing to change the way you play?

In any event, I'm not merely being mean-spirited, because the tension in this novel is not so much whether or not our man might make it as it is exactly how he doesn't. To wit, Bioshock: Rapture is in every sense a book about the journey rather than the destination. As McDonagh muses, "He had helped build something glorious, something unprecedented. Sure, Rapture was untried, was a glaringly new idea. A gigantic experiment. But they'd planned Rapture down to the last detail. How badly could it go wrong?" (p.123) A line of questioning to which, per my reading of Shirley's value-added narrative, I would also ask: how did this great city, and these basically decent people, fall so far? So far and so fast and so hard?

In that sense, Bioshock: Rapture is a rip-roaring success. It offers one last glimpse at an endlessly fascinating place in time, and provides neat insight into the minds of the men and women - great and small - behind it. It is too as authentic a piece of work as one could have hoped for; those non-canonical words and speeches Shirley has Andrew Ryan, for instance, ventriloquise, are perfectly in line with the character's voice and philosophy. Take the following nugget of wonderment:

"I've always had a fascination with the deep sea. It's another world - a free world! For years I read of giant squid netted from the depths, the adventures of explorers in diving bells and bathyspheres, strange things sighted by submariners. The thrilling potential of it all!" (p.97)

Or this patented Andrew Ryan wisdom: "A man must make of his life a ladder that he never ceases to climb - if you're not rising, you're slipping down the rungs, my friend." (p.33) Bioshock: Rapture is absolutely in line with the the world and the characters of Bioshock proper; indeed, it seamlessly incorporates certain elements of the sequel, too. And the notion that there is more to know about Ryan's Rapture proves in the final summation the most attractive aspect of Shirley's novel. 

Want to hear why all the Little Sisters look alike? John Shirley's got you covered. How about why there are tommy guns and grenade launchers leaning against every surface, or how Plasmids came to be dispensed from vending machines, or why what seems sometimes the entire population of Rapture started documenting random episodes of their day-to-day lives on audio logs? If you answered yes, gather round and listen, because Bioshock: Rapture has all that, and much more besides.

That being said, if you're after something more substantial - a satisfying narrative in its own right, for instance, or characters with anything but the broadest of arcs, or perhaps something approaching the same sense of untapped wonder that made Bioshock the first such an unforgettable experience - I dare say Bioshock: Rapture will disappoint. Shirley's slavish devotion to the demands of the narrative canon, such as it is, leaves precious little room for development along those lines, I'm afraid. But you can't have it both ways, and to a point, this way... this way worked for me.

In the end, the only real question one can ask is this: does Bioshock: Rapture sink, or does it swim? Well, strictly speaking, I'd have to admit it does neither, not quite... not right. But at least it floats. There's bloat in these here waters, alas, but also buoyancy, and I for one come away pleased to see there's this much life left in the old girl yet.


Bioshock: Rapture
by John Shirley

UK Publication: July 2011, Titan Books
US Publication: July 2011, Tor

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