Tuesday 29 November 2011

Comic Book Review | Northlanders Vol. 1 - Sven the Returned

Without some social contract in place - some agreement to say I will not harm you on the condition that you do not harm me, signed in spirit if not on legal letterhead - life, according to the 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, tends towards being nasty, brutish and short.

Nothlanders, the long-running comic book series about Vikings and all the bad juju they do by DMZ co-creator Brian Wood and in the first arc artist David Gianfelice, is nasty and brutish all right - in fact from the outset it is so very nasty and so excruciatingly brutish as to sicken, on occasion - but short? Short it is not.

Oh would that it had been! Would that Sven the Returned, the story this first trade collects, had been six issues of the ongoing long instead of eight; were that the case, Northlanders would have gotten off to an excellent start. But no. Instead, from the very beginning, writer Brian Wood seems content to spin his wheels, artificially inflating what should have been a solid introduction to the series to such an extent that it seems simply, sadly insubstantial.

It's the year 980, or thereabouts, and Sven has come home. Home for him, which is to say the place where he was born, is Orkney, a small island to the North of Scotland where Sven's father ruled the roost. Least he did till he died... murdered by his brother, Gorm, who has since piled evil upon evil and stolen Sven's inheritance. But now, after years abroad, living a life of luxury in Constantinople, the wayward son returns with dark designs of his own: to take back his birthright, by force if necessary.

And in the end, blood will tell. Fucking buckets of the stuff.

Northlanders has a pretty grim premise for a comic book - make no mistake: it is a far cry from teenagers nibbled by radioactive insects and blind men bearing sonar superpowers - and I'll admit I had my doubts as to whether such a story could sustain itself in the long term. That, in fairness, remains to be seen, but Sven the Returned seems an unconvincing opening statement in the case for sequential swords without sorcery, with as many high points as it has utterly loveless lows.

First and foremost, there are at least two issues' worth of padding in the first collected volume of Northlanders. Never mind the meaningless digressions that make up the larger part of what is in essence a fairly straightforward story - a bloated chronicle of Sven's lone wolf war on an isolated Viking settlement - for more egregious than these is Wood's use of space. There are wasted pages in each issue... needless single and double-page spreads in every last part which leave the heavy lifting to the artist, who despite his self-evident skillset can't single-handedly make something interesting out of nothing.

Here: look at Orkney. Rugged, isn't it? Now, look at it again. Had enough? No? Well, look at it ten more times! So it goes. 

This is lazy storytelling, plain and simple, and there is evidence of Wood's lamentably simplistic approach elsewhere. With all its contemporary cussing, for instance, the dialogue and narration of Sven the Return is obviously attempting a Deadwood, but Brian Wood is no David Milch - certainly not judging from this - and it sticks out like a sore thumb

That said, David Gianfelice's art is... if not attractive, exactly, then absolutely suited to the book. Alas, he's not the regular penciller; I'll be sad to see him take leave of the series as of the second volume of Northlanders, called The Cross + The Hammer. Which I will be reading.

If that comes as a surprise given my various criticisms of the creative force behind this series, then consider this: Northlanders is doing something that to the best of my knowledge no other comic book has done. Sequential swords without the sorcery. Dungeons without the blasted dragons. It's blazing a trail, in a way, and if there are a few missteps along the road to Something New... then so be it. So be it, so long as it isn't all bad.

And Sven the Returned is many things, but not that; not bad, not in any sense. Just too long, for what it is, and awfully self-serious where I'm sure a little silliness would have done this series the world of good.

Monday 28 November 2011

The Scotsman Abroad | Horowitz Is At Holmes

This interview with Anthony Horowitz did not make me want to read The House of Silk.

The House of Silk, for those of you who don't know, is the new Sherlock Holmes novel. No, really: there's a new Sherlock Holmes novel. Is that such a surprise? Given, for instance, the "lost" volume of Gormenghast that came out earlier in 2011? Never mind the renewed interest in the character and the canon as a result of the BBC TV series, which in my eyes can't come back soon enough, and the new movie franchise, which can, and indeed shall in a few short weeks.

Anyway, for the first time since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's death, the estate who hold the copyright on the great detective has invited a new author to step into Sherlock's shoes: namely Anthony Horowitz, who writes the Alex Rider series, and seems - to put it politely - pretty sure of himself.

The result? Actually a pretty terrific addition to the mythos:

"Call it revisionist literary history, call it po-faced pastiche, call it whatever you damn well please — and no doubt a certain camp will call The House of Silk a cold-blooded cash-grab, and worse — but be assured, whatever your position going in: it is from first to last a worthy Sherlock Holmes story, and there can be no more persuasive testament to its faithfulness, if not necessarily its greatness, than the fact that the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have claimed it as canon... though I would suggest, with the greatest respect, that they do so at their own peril.

"You see, insofar as The House of Silk pays fond homage to the Sherlock Holmes stories we have adored before, over and over, in the same breath Horowitz’s all-too-short sidequel of sorts also serves to shine new light on those things that made the great detective great, not least his ensemble support and the city his stories are set against. We see Holmes guided for once by instinct over intellect; we meet an Inspector Lestrade much improved over the hapless fool of Conan Doyle’s stories; meanwhile the Scots author’s well-to-do London seems in retrospect a positively pleasant place next to the ominous underbelly Horowitz represents so authentically." 

The House of Silk is respectful but not slavishly so, darker than the Sherlock Holmes stories we're used to but not so insidious as to scare anyone off. Ultimately it's just a bit of fun, and I rather doubt it'll ever figure in to the complex chronologies Conan Doyle devotees like to put together to pick apart... but fun is fun. I like fun.

Don't you?

Sunday 27 November 2011

Books Received | The BoSS for 27/11/11

In The BoSS this week - the last edition, I think, or the last-edition-but-one before the holidays, depending on what books present themselves for inspection over the next seven days - myths, origins, wicked trains, time-tripping whales... and end to Oz!


All Clear
by Connie Willis

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 20/10/11
by Gollancz

Review Priority
4 (Pretty Bloody Likely)

The Blurb: Traveling back in time, from Oxford circa 2060 into the thick of World War II, was a routine excursion for three British historians eager to study firsthand the heroism and horrors of the Dunkirk evacuation and the London Blitz. But getting marooned in war-torn 1940 England has turned Michael Davies, Merope Ward, and Polly Churchill from temporal tourists into besieged citizens struggling to survive Hitler’s devastating onslaught. And now there’s more to worry about than just getting back home: The impossibility of altering past events has always been a core belief of time-travel theory—but it may be tragically wrong. When discrepancies in the historical record begin cropping up, it suggests that one or all of the future visitors have somehow changed the past—and, ultimately, the outcome of the war. Meanwhile, in 2060 Oxford, the stranded historians’ supervisor, Mr. Dunworthy, frantically confronts the seemingly impossible task of rescuing his students—three missing needles in the haystack of history.

The thrilling time-tripping adventure that began with Blackout now hurtles to its stunning resolution in All Clear.

My Thoughts: When Blackout hit here, earlier in the year, I couldn't quite decide whether or not to read it immediately or wait, as patiently as possible, for All Clear to come out too, because I understood that these two books were in fact one larger novel, split down the middle, and I'd heard many a sad story from US-based bloggers about how the wait for the second part had been excruciating. I didn't want to put myself through that. On the other hand, however, what with all the awards the latest from Connie Willis has won, I had a hard time restraining myself.

In the end, my indecision made my decision for me.

But now All Clear is here. This means war: one man's struggle to read something like 1600 pages within the next ten days. I very much doubt I'll come out of this conflict on top, but by gum I'm gonna try!

Out of Oz
by Gregory McGuire

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 01/11/11
by Headline Review

Review Priority
2 (It Could Happen)

The Blurb: The marvelous land of Oz is knotted with social unrest: The Emerald City is mounting an invasion of Munchkinland, Glinda is under house arrest, and the Cowardly Lion is on the run from the law. And look who's knocking at the door. It's none other than Dorothy. Yes, that Dorothy.

Amid all this chaos, Elphaba's granddaughter, the tiny green baby born at the close of Son of a Witch, has come of age. Now, Rain will take up her broom in an Oz wracked by war.

Out of Oz is a magical journey rife with revelations and reversals, reprisals and surprises - the hallmarks of the brilliant and unique imagination of Gregory Maguire.

My Thoughts: It began with Wicked. It all ends with Out of Oz.

Secretly I've always really wanted to see Wicked. I haven't had the chance yet: musicals take ages to work their way up to Edinburgh. Hell, I'm still waiting to see The Lion King!

Saying that, the books on which I understand the musical was based, of which this is apparently the last in the line, well... they don't exactly appeal. Who would do the singing? Me?

So it's not particularly likely I'll read Out of Oz. Certainly not anytime soon, and not, if I'm honest, likely anytime ever. Still, this book is really a very pretty thing, to look at and to touch, and that in itself is worth its weight.

Myths of Origins: Four Short Novels

by Catherynne M. Valente

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 06/12/11
by Wyrm Publishing

Review Priority
5 (A Sure Thing)

The Blurb: Live the Myth! New York Times best-seller Catherynne M. Valente is the single most compelling voice to emerge in fantasy fiction in decades. Collected here for the first time, her early short novels explore, deconstruct, and ultimately explode the seminal myths of both East and West, casting them in ways you've never read before and may never read again.

In "The Labyrinth," a woman wanderer, a Maze like no other, a Monkey and a Minotaur and a world full of secrets leading down to the Center of it All. In "Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams," an aged woman named Ayako lives in medieval Japan, but dreams in mythical worlds that beggar the imagination... including our own modern world. When a hero challenges a great and evil serpent in "The Grass-Cutting Sword," who speaks for the snake? In this version of a myth from the ancient chronicle Kojiki, the serpent speaks for himself. Finally, in "Under in the Mere," Arthur and Lancelot, Mordred and le Fay. The saga has been told a thousand times, but never in the poetic polyphony of this novella, a story far deeper than it is long.

My Thoughts: Last year, at the last minute, I declared The Habitation of the Blessed my favourite book of 2010. Fully twelve months on, I'm still not sure if that was the right decision, but then these sorts of decisions are never easy, and rarely clear, and it seemed like the right decision at the time.
What there is no doubt about is that I stand in abject awe of Cat Valente. She's a wordsmith unlike any other, and I've had occasion to read two of her other books this year - Deathless and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making - neither of which gave me cause to question that assertion.

So this opportunity to catch up on her very earliest work - the four short novels collection in Myths of Origin - is both welcome and a little worrying, because what if these stories don't hold up?
In any event I can guarantee you a review of this book. It's a sure thing, sure... but I'd like to take my time with it, so don't anyone hold their breath.

 Hell Train
by Christopher Fowler

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 05/01/12
by Solaris

Review Priority
3 (We'll See)

The Blurb: Imagine there was a supernatural chiller that Hammer Films never made. A grand epic produced at the studio's peak, which played like a cross between the Dracula and Frankenstein films and Dr Terror's House Of Horrors...

Four passengers meet on a train journeying through Eastern Europe during the First World War, and face a mystery that must be solved if they are to survive. As the Arkangel races through the war-torn countryside, they must find out: what is in the casket that everyone is so afraid of? What is the tragic secret of the veiled Red Countess who travels with them? Why is their fellow passenger the army brigadier so feared by his own men? And what exactly is the devilish secret of the Arkangel itself? Bizarre creatures, satanic rites, terrified passengers and the romance of travelling by train, all in a classically styled horror novel.

My Thoughts: Am I wrong to be getting a Strangers on a Train vibe from this thing?

Probably. And I sincerely doubt that Hell Train is apt to take itself anything like so seriously as that short Patricia Highsmith story did. But between that and the Hammer Horror reference in the blurb, this recent arrival is certainly making all the right moves; at least it is from where I'm sitting, back in economy class of course.

Thus, this could be fun. And between Blackout and All Clear, Myths of Origins and this next new arrival, I would wager I'm about to be in real need of something so easygoing.

In the Mouth of the Whale
by Paul McAuley

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 19/01/12
by Gollancz

Review Priority
4 (Pretty Bloody Likely)

The Blurb: Fomalhaut was first colonised by the posthuman Quick, who established an archipelago of thistledown cities and edenic worldlets within the star's vast dust belt. Their peaceful, decadent civilisation was swiftly conquered by a band of ruthless, aggressive, unreconstructed humans who call themselves the True, then, a century before, the True beat back an advance party of Ghosts, a posthuman cult which colonised the nearby system of Beta Hydri after being driven from the Solar System a thousand years ago.

Now the Ghosts have returned to Fomalhaut, to begin their endgame: the conquest of its single gas giant planet, a captured interstellar wanderer far older than the rest of Fomalhaut's system. At its core is a sphere of hot metallic hydrogen with strange and powerful properties based on exotic quantum physics. The Quick believe it is inhabited by an ancient alien Mind; the True believe it can be developed into a weapon; and the Ghosts believe it can be transformed into a computational system so powerful it can reach into their past, collapse timelines, and fulfill the ancient prophecies of their founder.

My Thoughts: Is this another space opera set in the same universe as The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun? Could it be?

Why yes, I think it could. Though I'm not 100% sure.

But let's say that. Let's also say that I look back on my time with The Quiet War very fondly - the review is here - and furthermore that Gardens of the Sun has had pride of place in my tower of books To Be Read ever since.

Still, that counts for all of squat; I can mean to read a book for years and be no closer to the actual experience it. But this is getting silly. I really enjoyed The Quiet War, and by all accounts Gardens of the Sun is its equal, so I shall endeavour to get caught up on my Paul McAuley over the holidays, the better to have a review of In the Mouth of the Whale ready in time for its publication in mid-January.


And with that, The BoSS takes its final bow... until next time.

Which will either be next Sunday, as ever, if anything awesome arrives in the mail between now and then, or early in the new year.

In the interim, what do you mean to read over the holidays? For my part, I have grand designs - already doomed for failure, I dare say - on several entire series.

Friday 25 November 2011

Book Review | A Single Shot by Matthew F. Jones

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Anyone's life can change in an instant. In Matthew F. Jones's acclaimed novel, one man's world is overturned with a single shot.

Trespassing on what was once his family's land, John Moon hears a rustle in the brush and fires. But instead of the deer he was expecting, he finds the body of a young woman, killed by his stray bullet. A terrible dilemma is made worse when he stumbles upon her campground - and the piles of drugs and money concealed there.

Moon makes his choice: he hides the corpse, and takes the cash. His decision will have consequences he can neither predict or control.


"The buck should have died in the pines from a single shot," (p.11) opines former farmer John Moon, hunting illegally on the estate that would have been his had not his father squandered it away in his last days. But no such luck. John has only managed to wing the deer, and when it runs, fearful of what might happen if it's found, bled out, he gives chase, tracking the buck to an abandoned quarry, where a sudden noise and a flash of colour startles him into firing a second slug.

Only later does John understand what he's done. For the moment, he

...picks up his shotgun from the grass-and-weed-covered gravel, starts to cock it, then, changing his mind, wraps both hands around the barrel, hoists the butt like a post-hole digger above the deer's head, and brings it forcefully down. The deer's skull collapses like a rotten vegetable. The buck groans once, for several seconds twitches again, then lies still. Placing the gun on the ground, John thinks it shouldn't have come to this. (p.11)

Finally he turns to survey the unintended consequences of his second shot, laying splayed on the forest floor: the terrible wreckage of what was only moments ago a runaway taking refuge in the quarry. "She is maybe sixteen, with crystal-blue eyes, blossom-shaped clumps of freckles on both cheeks, a small space between her upper incisors where a piece of gum or chewable candy is lodged. The clump of blond hair is a ponytail. John looks up at the sky. It looks just as it did five minutes before. He can't figure out how that can be." (p.13)

Knowing full well that this is an accident he will not be able to explain to anyone's satisfaction - not even his own - John, ever the practical man, hides the girl's body. In so doing, he finds a sackful of cash; ill-gotten gains, he reasons. Money from a robbery or a drug deal. Why else would the girl have hidden out here in the sticks?

With nothing left to lose, John takes the money and runs. He will find, however, that he has a great deal left to lose. His health... his estranged wife and child... perhaps even his life. Because the girl may not have been alone in the forest after all.

So begins A Single Shot, a short, sharp shock of a country noir novel come at long last to the UK, fully fifteen years since its much ballyhooed-about publication in America. If anyone can explain to me why in the Sam hell it took so long for this harrowing yet elegant specimen to touch down, I'd be much obliged.

In any event, the shattering impact of A Single Shot - we might as well call it blunt force trauma - seems to me not at all diminished by the decade and a half it's spent in transit. A story very much in the mode of Deliverance, and reminiscent of the work of Daniel Woodrell (who wrote Winter's Bone, and not coincidentally introduces this text), A Single Shot is narrated entirely by its protagonist, the flustered, blustery murderer John Moon. Moreover, his is a tale told in the present tense from first to last, which bestows upon events such excruciating immediacy as to make the reader feel as anxious, as endangered, as this drunken hunter, now hunted.

At a level deeper than conscious comprehension, John is thinking that the apparent palpability of words, acts, the whole process of human interchange, is a sham. He is mindful, though, only of his physical distress. His trembling extremities. His palpitating heart. (p.171)

Matthew F. Jones' belated third novel is an unbearably tense affair, at times, and all piss and vinegar and pornography - to wit: be warned that there's a whole lot of sex herein - when on rare occasion lives (innocent or otherwise) are not knowingly at stake. A Single Shot is not in truth a very likeable book, but from the first of its seven chapters - each of which corresponds to a single day of a single week in the life of poor, put-upon Moon - one becomes so swept up in the heady momentum of things, which go from bad to worse to oh-God-made-it-stop in short order, that there is nary a moment to stop and consider the withered lilies: the disgust and deep discomfort that are A Single Shot's stock in trade.

Black as pitch but beautiful in its terrible, wondrous way, A Single Shot is a distressing but unputdownable evening's reading sure to stay with one long after the lights have gone out. The movie is of course due sometime in 2012, and I expect it'll be tremendous. Thanks be that we have this chance to see what all the fuss has been about before then.


A Single Shot
by Matthew F. Jones

UK and US Publication: September 2011, Mulholland Books

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Recommended and Related Reading

Thursday 24 November 2011

Film Review | Captain America: The First Avenger, dir. Joe Johnston

Do I love my country?

I don't know that I do. Maybe that's because I'm Scottish. Maybe that's because Scotland isn't from the inside - or the outside - a very loveable country; we highlanders are a violent and violently unhealthly people. Some of the sights hereabouts sure are pretty to look at, but wherever there are large numbers of people? If you can possibly avoid it, you probably don't want to go there. I know I don't.

In a larger sense, though, I think a country, and all the concept of country entails, is a difficult thing to feel for with such intensity... such unquestioning acceptance.

But Steve Rogers? Boy oh boy does he love his country! The Second World War is in full swing, and Steve wants nothing more than to take to the front-lines with his best buddy Bucky. But the military won't have him, no matter how often he applies - and he applies often. Alas, he's a lanky young man, physically a complete and total weakling with a long and sordid history of chronic conditions to boot.

So on the eve of his best friend's departure, when a doctor in charge of a top secret research project offers Steve another way to play some part in the ongoing war effort, the little fella - God bless him - jumps at the chance. Several vials of super-serum later, Captain America is born. All too soon, sadly, the doctor dies, and when it transpires that his super-serum can't be reproduced, Steve's only option is to help sell war bonds. In a year he has becomes an icon of purity and patriotism to the people at home, but abroad, where it actually matters a damn, he remains an object of ridicule: a man in tights, if he's any sort of man at all.

Oddly, Joe Johnston - the director who gave us Jumanji, The Rocketeer and Jurassic Park III amongst many other fondly-remembered Hollywood movies, not least Honey, I Shrunk the Kids! - Joe Johnston takes, I'm afraid, an awfully long time to tell this origin story that needn't (truth be told) have been told at all, given how intimately familiar it is... even to me, and I haven't read a Captain America comic book in my life.

Thus the first hour of Captain America: The First Avenger is an at-times excruciatingly slow build-up to a second hour that seems relentless by comparison. Indeed it is: one elaborate set-piece picks up where the last left off, and the next is always hot on its overheated heels. By the end you're basically dazed, if not confused, for this is after all an exceedingly simple film.

Simplicity is no slight in itself, of course. Often the best stories can be reduced down to one of a few boilerplate premises; it is in how a story is told that it can become exceptional, or else. But there's not a lot of nuance in Captain America: The First Avenger either. At one point, as the worm turns, Hugo Weaving as the only other person besides Steve Rogers to have survived the super-serum - so it should come as no surprise that Johann Schmidt is the bad nasty apple to Steve Rogers' delicious and nutritious orange - anyway, Hugo Weaving, somewhere around the halfway mark of the movie, actually tears off his face, to reveal the evil red skull beneath!

If you can swallow that - that, and swear an oath that you won't take anything in this film in the least seriously, up to and including a few objectionable moments - there's actually a fair bit of fun to be had with Captain America: The First Avenger. It's compromised in almost every sense, yet there's a certain purity to it. It's dated already, but right down to some horrendous special effects, it looks the part. Needless to say, none of the characters are anything resembling interesting, but an impressive cast put forth some solid performances in any event: Hugo Weaving hams it up marvelously, mostly, I expect Billie Piper fans will watch to watch the charming Hayley Atwell closely, and there is just enough humility to Chris Evans' performance that his Steve Rogers is every bit as credible as his Captain America is incredible.

So. Patriotic shenanigans, decently done if you can overlook the vast imbalance between the first half and the last, and some dodginess here and there. Fun for the whole family; that is, assuming the whole family is doing something else at the time.

I'd recommend a comic book!

Wednesday 23 November 2011

We Interrupt This Broadcast | Getting Ahead of Ourselves

I've already mentioned that this is the time of the year when I take it upon myself to power through a selection - of some, but not all - of the books I've managed to miss through 2011; those novels, and in particular those genre novels, that have been recommended to me over and over again, that I feel I really should read before I offer up my thoughts on the best books of the year and so on.

The same goes for all the movies that have contrived to pass me by, so Sucker Punch, Super 8, Conan, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, etc. Pretty much all the biggies, truth be told. I've been to the cinema all of three times this year. My setup here at home - I have true surround sound, 1080p, beautiful black levels, comfy sofas, and a big ol' telly - suits me just fine. Plus there's almost no chance that my living room is going to stink of piss and not nearly enough bleach to disguise the stink of piss, as it so happened was the case the last time I went to the pictures, to see Paranormal Activity 3.

(I wonder if there's not an almighty digression in there somewhere, beginning with my lacking appetite for that singular feature film experience, taking in falling ticket sales and the rise of gimmickry like 3D to make up for all those "lost" dollars. But the thought couldn't have occurred at a worse time.)

Now I'm never going to be able to read all the books I'd like too, nor see all the movies I mean to - not before Top of the Scots kicks off in early December, if ever - but you know what? I'm going to try.

This undertaking began on surer footing than I could have hoped for, with By Light Alone by Adam Roberts and a certain movie you'll see reviewed here on TSS within the next 10 days. Last night it continued courtesy of Sucker Punch, which I was fool enough to watch the extended edition of, and Blackout by Connie Willis, because the sooner begun, the sooner done. But even as we speak I'm far from finished crossing my Is and dotting my Ts, as they say.

Still and all, I had hoped to keep blogging at a semi-regular rate through this period. Sadly some of my other commitments have cunningly chosen this moment to kick into high gear. I won't bore you with the details, except to say that taken together, all these shiny new obligations have made it quite difficult for me to get any one thing done; even an itty-bitty post like this.

But one down now! Only, oh... something like 30 more things to go.

What? No, I don't have a to-do list. What are you talking about? :P

Anyway, wish me luck. And please, dear readers: bear with me. There will be blog posts, I promise! And then on the fifth day of December the year-end celebrations shall start, come hell or high water.

After that? Why after that, I have a mind to turn this little old blog quite upside down. Much as I love the black and purple (but shockingly legible) template TSS is based on, my patience with Blogger - specifically with the horrendous formatting it imposes on so many of my posts, no matter which browser I use to put them through, or how long I spend tinkering about in the effing source code - has long since worn thin.

I am officially considering my other options.

But let's not get ahead of getting ahead of ourselves just yet!

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Book Review | The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

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In the good old days, magic was powerful, unregulated by government, and even the largest spell could be woven without filling in magic release form B1-7g.

Then the magic started fading away.

Fifteen-year-old Jennifer Strange runs Kazam, an employment agency for soothsayers and sorcerers. But work is drying up. Drain cleaner is cheaper than a spell, and even magic carpets are reduced to pizza delivery.

So it's a surprise when the visions start. Not only do they predict the death of the Last Dragon at the hands of a dragonslayer, they also point to Jennifer, and say something is coming.

Big Magic...

If you've ever wondered what fantasy could be, if it didn't take itself so very, very seriously, look no further than Fforde.

The Last Dragonslayer is I think an ideal introduction to his work. Pitched ostensibly as a fantasy for young adults, Jasper Fforde's ninth novel in the first in a new trilogy with no real entry requirements, about dragons and magic and, as ever, the soul-crushing weight of bureaucracy. And come one, come all, because there's nothing childish about this book. It's short, is all.

Short, and so sweet I'd advise you brush your teeth both before and after reading it. But dear readers: do read it.

In the absence of The Great Zambini, who vanished in a puff of smoke at the climax of a magic show for birthday babies six months ago, the indentured orphan Jennifer Strange manages Kazam, which is to say one of only two remaining sorcerers-for-hire outfits in all the twenty-eight nations of the Ununited Kingdoms.

You must be wondering what happened to all the others. Well:

A half-century ago Mystical Arts Management was considered a sound career choice and citizens fought for a place. These days, it was servitude only, as with agricultural labour, hotels and fast-food joints. Of the twenty or so Houses of Enchantment that had existed fifty years ago, only Kazam in the Kingdom of Hereford and Industrial Magic over in Stroud were still going. It was an industry in terminal decline. The power of magic had been ebbing for centuries and, with it, the relevance of sorcerers. Once a wizard would have the ear of a king; today we rewire houses and unblock drains. (p.19)

Lamentably, even that's an almighty guddle in this day and age, because "an unwelcome legacy from the fourteenth century" means "any unlicensed act of sorcery done outisde the boundaries of a House of Enchantment is punishable by... public burning." (p.52) So for every lead pipe Kazam's sorcerers are paid a proverbial pittance to levitate, Jennifer must fill out a slew of paperwork. But work the various individuals under Kazam's care must, because "even inexplicable entities comprised of charged particles kept in order by a weak magnetic field need cash to survive." (p.45)

Wisdom for the ages, there!

Anyway, when pre-cogs all across the country start predicting, day and date, the death of the last dragon, the thought of a vast land-grab - for the dragon Montcassion has 320 square miles all to itself - stirs the people of the Ununited Kingdoms into a frenzy, such that soon war seems sure to break out between Hereford and its put-upon neighbours. Sensibly, Jennifer doesn't want that to happen, but only the dragonslayer can enter the dragonlands - the better to talk some sense into Moncassion - and she's no dragonslayer.

Or... wait. What? She is?

Oh. Alrighty then.

The Last Dragonslayer feels all too brief at less than 300 pages of rather large print, but other than that, there's not a complaint I would make about it. It is simply a delightful little thing, complete with a perpetual teapot and feral sheep, which is to say a quick-witted, brilliantly British sense of humour and an imagination glad to go there, where other authors wouldn't dare, for fear of having fun... which as we all know lessens a text.

But no. No it doesn't, and I would argue that The Last Dragonslayer is proof positive of that contrary conclusion. Whimsy and idiosyncrasy may well be acquired tastes among some genre readers, but equally the staunch self-importance of so many more celebrated sf and fantasy sagas can leave leagues of newcomers cold. Jasper Fforde, meanwhile, will warm your cockles through and through, presuming you can swallow the inimitable silliness he has made his bread and butter.

If not, never mind. After all, in this world "unimaginable horrors share the day with moments of confusing perplexity and utter randomness. To call it a madhouse would insult even the maddest of madhouses." (p.17) Home sweet home for Jasper Fforde fans, then. And I shouldn't wonder that The Last Dragonslayer will win over a fair few newcomers to the fold too, to whom I would bid a very warm welcome.

Pray stay awhile?


The Last Dragonslayer
by Jasper Fforde

UK Publication: November 2010, Hodder & Stoughton

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Sunday 20 November 2011

Books Received | The BoSS for 20/11/11

In The BoSS this week, in an order of sorts: the creator of Midsomer Murders gives the Conan Doyle canon a whirl... I see the Clockwork Century is still ticking over, and I sigh... a wanted ad for one last dragonslayer to kill the last dragon in all the lands... vampires, zombies, and vampires versus zombies... and the literary equivalent of Event Horizon, at long last!

I mean, we've all been waiting, haven't we?


The House of Silk
by Anthony Horowitz

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 01/11/11
by Orion

Review Priority
5 (A Sure Thing)

The Blurb: It is November 1890 and London is gripped by a merciless winter. Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are enjoying tea by the fire when an agitated gentleman arrives unannounced at 221b Baker Street. He begs Holmes for help, telling the unnerving story of a scar-faced man with piercing eyes who has stalked him in recent weeks.

Intrigued by the man's tale, Holmes and Watson find themselves swiftly drawn into a series of puzzling and sinister events, stretching from the gas-lit streets of London to the teeming criminal underworld of Boston. As the pair delve deeper into the case, they stumble across a whispered phrase - the House of Silk - a mysterious entity and foe more deadly than any Holmes has encountered, and a conspiracy that threatens to tear apart the very fabric of society itself...

With devilish plotting and excellent characterisation, bestselling author Anthony Horowitz delivers a first-rate Sherlock Holmes mystery for a modern readership whilst remaining utterly true to the spirit of the original Conan Doyle books. Sherlock Holmes is back with all the nuance, pace and powers of deduction that make him the world's greatest and most celebrated detective.

My Thoughts: Right up until this review copy of The House of Silk hit my doorstep, I had hummed and hawed about whether or not I actually had any interest in reading the further adventures of Sherlock Holmes, as imagined by Anthony Horowitz, the children's author behind baby Bond (AKA Alex Rider). Then it was here and it was all lovely and, as it happened, yes, I did have an interest.

Now I only wish there was another new Sherlock Holmes novel that I could hum and haw about in place of this terrific little tribute!

If you keep an eye on the front page of tor.com this week, you should see my review go live on the site sooner rather than later, but I'll remind you when it's time.

by Cherie Priest

Vital Statistics
Published in the US
on 27/10/11
by Tor

Review Priority
2 (It Could Happen)

The Blurb: The air pirate Andan Cly is going straight. Well, straighter. Although he’s happy to run alcohol guns wherever the money’s good, he doesn’t think the world needs more sap, or its increasingly ugly side-effects. But becoming legit is easier said than done, and Cly’s first legal gig — a supply run for the Seattle Underground — will be paid for by sap money.

New Orleans is not Cly’s first pick for a shopping run. He loved the Big Easy once, back when he also loved a beautiful mixed-race prostitute named Josephine Early — but that was a decade ago, and he hasn’t looked back since. Jo’s still thinking about him, though, or so he learns when he gets a telegram about a peculiar piloting job. It’s a chance to complete two lucrative jobs at once, one he can’t refuse. He sends his old paramour a note and heads for New Orleans, with no idea of what he’s in for — or what she wants him to fly.

But he won’t be flying. Not exactly. Hidden at the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain lurks an astonishing war machine, an immense submersible called the Ganymede. This prototype could end the war, if only anyone had the faintest idea of how to operate it... if only they could sneak it past the Southern forces at the mouth of the Mississippi River... if only it hadn’t killed most of the men who’d ever set foot inside it. But it’s these “if onlys” that will decide whether Cly and his crew will end up in the history books, or at the bottom of the ocean.

My Thoughts: From Holmesian highs to clockwork lows, The BoSS is a thrill a minute, innit?

I'm not being disingenuous when I say that I might very well read and review Ganymede, the third in the pseudo-steampunk series Cherie Priest began with Boneshaker and continued in Dreadnought, but understand that if I do, I do so out of some foul combination of my need to finish all those things I start and morbid bloody curiosity, because - I'm sorry - I know most everyone else loves them, but these are not good books. That they've been trumpeted about the way they assuredly have been makes me bitter and suspicious about all sorts of things, in fact.

Anyway... onwards and upwards!

The Last Dragonslayer
by Jasper Fforde

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 15/10/11
by Hodder & Stoughton

Review Priority
4 (Pretty Bloody Likely)

The Blurb: In the good old days, magic was powerful, unregulated by government, and even the largest spell could be woven without filling in magic release form B1-7g.

Then the magic started fading away.

Fifteen-year-old Jennifer Strange runs Kazam, an employment agency for soothsayers and sorcerers. But work is drying up. Drain cleaner is cheaper than a spell, and even magic carpets are reduced to pizza delivery.

So it's a surprise when the visions start. Not only do they predict the death of the Last Dragon at the hands of a dragonslayer, they also point to Jennifer, and say something is coming. Big Magic...

My Thoughts: I loved loved loved Shades of Grey, as you may remember if you read this review, and though the Thursday Next series hasn't grabbed me from the get-go - which isn't to say I won't give it another shot at some point - this looks immediately more up my alley. They're claiming it as YA, but I've read a bit of The Last Dragonslayer already, and I don't see how it's any more that than any of Jasper Fforde's veritable fiesta of other work.

But whatever. It's short, it's sweet, and it's already made me laugh; I'm in whatever you want to call it.

Double Dead
by Chuck Wendig

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 03/11/11
by Rebellion

Review Priority
3 (We'll See)

The Blurb: Coburn's been dead now for close to a century, but seeing as how he's a vampire and all, it doesn t much bother him. Or at least it didn't, not until he awoke from a forced five-year slumber to discover that most of human civilization was now dead but not dead like him, oh no. See, Coburn likes blood. The rest of the walking dead, they like brains. He's smart. Them, not so much. But they outnumber him by about a million to one. And the clotted blood of the walking dead cannot sustain him. Now he's starving. And nocturnal. And more hacked-off than a bee-stung rattlesnake. The vampire not only has to find human survivors (with their sweet, sweet blood), but now he has to transition from predator to protector after all, a man has to look after his food supply.

My Thoughts: Wasn't it just the other day everyone was banging on about the cover art to Chuck Wendig's next novel, Blackbirds? Why yes, yes it was.

And then, as if by magic - summoned perhaps by the collective stampede of interest in a work of fiction no-one knows a great deal about because of what is admittedly a very pretty picture (are these really some of the same people who argue that they're not influenced by cover art?) - along came this crumpet.

I'll say I was markedly more excited to read Double Dead before I spotted the tiny Tomes of the Dead text above the title. Vampires versus zombies in a shared world that I've never yet visited? Thanks - sincerely, it's the thought that counts - but no thanks.

I'll probably wait it out for Blackbirds... in part because it has such a lovely cover. And I don't understand why there's such shame associated with admitting that.

Hull Zero Three
by Greg Bear

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 01/11/11
by Gollancz

Review Priority
3 (We'll See)

The Blurb: A star-ship hurtles through the emptiness of space. Its destination... unknown. Its purpose? A mystery. Its history? Lost.

Now: one man wakes up. Ripped from a dream of a new home, a new planet and the woman he was meant to love in his arms, he finds himself wet, naked, and freezing to death. The dark halls are full of monsters but trusting other survivors he meets might be the greater danger.

All he has are questions. Who is he? Where are they going? What happened to the dream of a new life? What happened to the woman he loved? What happened to Hull 03? All will be answered, if he can survive. Uncover the mystery. Fix the ship. Find a way home.

My Thoughts: Mean-spirited circumstances contrived in such a way as to ensure I didn't get a copy of Hull Zero Three when it was new in the UK late last year, and I dare say I'd have been excited to read it then. But now? Now that a consensus on the book has arisen, and it seems to err on the negative? Now that I've read and found wanting Halo: Cryptum by the same author? Less excited.

You know what, though? Event Horizon. I love Event Horizon. And evidently there are others who do too - if I'd only known! - because in the blurb on Amazon, lo and behold, reference is made to the movie. And that's kind of... kind of irresistible to me. So we'll see.


Anyone else out there with a weird thing for evil Sam Neill? We should have badges!

So, I should think my reading for the week will begin with The Last Dragonslayer, end with The Weird - as it has done ever since that great and terrible beast of a thing came through the door a few weeks ago - and very possibly stop off at Hull Zero Three, if I can find the time, and the renewed inclination.


Same time same place next week, folks, then The BoSS is taking the holidays off... because honestly, it's been pretty quiet around here of late. What's with that?

Friday 18 November 2011

Book Review | Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

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Humanity has colonized the solar system - Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond - but the stars are still out of our reach.

Jim Holden is XO of an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, The Scopuli, they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for - and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew. War is brewing in the system unless he can find out who left the ship and why.

Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to The Scopuli and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.

Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations - and the odds are against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.


You know what the first thing I wanted to do was, when I finished reading book one of The Expanse? Read book two of The Expanse. And mayhap the third after that. You set 'em up, Orbit, and I'll knock 'em down!

Truly, I could not get enough of Leviathan Wakes. To be perfectly frank, I'm not the biggest SF fan - though equally I suppose I am far from the smallest - yet this masterful collaboration checked off every one of my marks, before proceeding to tear right through the census. Were it not for Embassytown, and the months of new genre releases still stretched out before me, I'd declare it the best science fiction novel of 2011 right now and call it a day. Furthermore, much as I love my Mieville - and I love my Mieville - in terms of pure, unadulterated fun, Leviathan Wakes would handily take the cake come that particular cage match.

But apples and oranges: after all, Leviathan Wakes is sprung from a very different oeuvre of SF than Embassytown, with its towering intelligence and its inextricably literary smarts, might be said to signify. It is, as per George R. R. Martin's bang-on three word blurb, "Kickass space opera." Well, quite. Consider my ass kicked black and blue.

The first thing you need to know about Leviathan Wakes - that is to say the first thing after it's awesome - is that it is very much a book of twos. That it comes from the pseudonymous pen of two distinct writers - namely Daniel Abraham, author of The Long Price quartet and of late The Dragon's Path, and Ty Franck, assistant to the man and the mind behind A Song of Ice and Fire - two distinct writers working together for the first time, no less, is only the beginning of its duality. Yet it factors.

Rather more notable, and I would assert not unrelated to that precursory split, is the twofold division in its narration, for through its slightly bloated course Leviathan Wakes alternates between chapters told from the perspective of two men, worlds apart in space and purpose. For years, XO Jim Holden has been doing laps around the solar system, which humanity has long since colonised as of the start of The Expanse. But his half-cocked career hauling glaciers from asteroid to planet and back comes to a shocking conclusion when his ship, the Canterbury, is killed. Whether Holden and his close-knit skeleton crew survived the devastation by accident or design remains to be seen, but determined to do The Right Thing, he broadcasts evidence of the unprovoked attack on the hauler far and wide.

So begins the First Solar War.

In fairness to Holden, the self-righteous so-and-so, it's been a long time coming. Practically since mankind took to the stars, there has been a certain tension between those folks who call Earth and its immediate surroundings home, and the Belters, who hail from the Outer Planets, where life is nasty, brutish and short. On Ceres Station, through which flows "a river of wealth and power unrivalled in human history," doggone Detective Joe Miller provides a perspective in ideological opposition to Holden's; he's a glass half empty sort of guy, while the XO's cup is always full. Miller is too well placed to see the effects of Holden's unwitting declaration of war, because from the moment of his address, tensions between the Earthers and Belters on Ceres - already near boiling point - suddenly erupt.

It's all Miller can do to keep the fragile peace as "the great, implacable clockwork of war ticked one step closer to open fighting," so when his chief dumps a kidnap job on the bitter old detective, he thinks little of it. Yet through it all, it is the disappearance of Julie Mao - the rebellious daughter of one of Ceres Station's security force's biggest financial backers - that plays uppermost on Miller's mind. Then, when open conflict ultimately comes, and the detective is promptly divested of his position, it is her trail he follows... and it leads him all the way to Holden, and his merry band of intergalactic idealists.

So it is that two become one, and Leviathan Wakes at last takes to the stars. I'll admit I had my reservations about this collaboration beforehand - the self-same trepidatiousness with which I approach all such works - and though a truly gripping pre-credits tease did a great deal to dissuade them, as the first book of The Expanse wore on, the narrative's stark duality began to jar. Clearly one perspective was written by one author, my head said, and the other by another; as fine a way as any to divide collaborations, so far as it goes, but initially it felt as if I were reading a pair of discrete tales spliced into one peculiar-looking entity.

That's as may be, but rest assured: when Leviathan Wakes finally comes together, by the dead does it come together. In fact I dare say it's a moment made all the more powerful because of the time it takes for Franck and Abraham to enmesh as authors.

When the season to celebrate the year's most singular literary feats arrives, I very much doubt Leviathan Wakes will be deemed a contender. More's the pity, for short a slight sag in the middle and the air of disparity inherent in most collaborative works, it makes for terrific science fiction. That is to say terrific "working man's science fiction," as Corey notes in the incisive interview supplementing the value-packed e-book edition - and snobbery is as snobbery does, so do not expect the Nebulas to take note.

Doesn't mean you and I shouldn't sit up straight in our chairs and devote our collective attention, because the first book of The Expanse boasts some of the most thrilling action in recent memory, and a world - nay, a universe! - brilliantly built yet not overdesigned, courtesy a minimalist aesthetic which rings all too true. It features a cast of characters which, however archetypal, make for fine, fun company; a pace that rarely flags; and moments of excruciating tension, and skin-crawling horror to boot.

If Leviathan Wakes is not particularly thoughtful SF, then it is the perfect reminder that sometimes... sometimes it's nice to turn down the power, and let someone else do the heavy lifting for you. In that regard, I put to you that the entity James S. A. Corey could hold the very universe on its shoulders.


Leviathan Wakes
by James S. A. Corey

UK & US Publication: June 2011, Orbit

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