Tuesday 31 January 2012

Book Review | Planesrunner by Ian McDonald

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There is not one you. There are many yous. There is not one world. There are many worlds. Ours is one of billions of parallel earths.

When Everett Singh's scientist father is kidnapped from the streets of London, he leaves young Everett a mysterious app on his computer. Suddenly, this teenager has become the owner of the most valuable object in the multiverse — the Infundibulum — the map of all the parallel earths, and there are dark forces in the Ten Known Worlds who will stop at nothing to get it. They've got power, authority, and the might of ten planets — some of them more technologically advanced than our Earth — at their fingertips. He's got wits, intelligence, and a knack for Indian cooking.

To keep the Infundibulum safe, Everett must trick his way through the Heisenberg Gate his dad helped build and go on the run in a parallel Earth. But to rescue his Dad from Charlotte Villiers and the sinister Order, this Planesrunner's going to need friends. Friends like Captain Anastasia Sixsmyth, her adopted daughter Sen, and the crew of the airship Everness.

Can they rescue Everett's father and get the Infundibulum to safety? The game is afoot!


"The multiverse, on your iPad." Can you imagine?

Luckily for the multiverse, Everett Singh out of Hackney can.

The young son of a brilliant theoretical physicist, a fine cook and a prize goalkeeper to boot, at the outset of Planesrunner Everett, momentarily helpless, sees his father Tejendra spirited away against his will in a long, dark car by long, dark men dressed in long, dark coats. The police are promptly called out, but they don't seem to take Everett's statement seriously, and when, days later, they return the blurry pictures he took of the incident - doctored so as to obscure any and all details that might aid an inquiry they seem oddly intent on arsing up - Everett realises that he's going to have to save Tejendra himself.

For all intents and purposes, however, his father has vanished without a trace. As the official investigation dead-ends into infinity, Everett's only clue is a file left anonymously on his drop box: it's called Infundibulum, and our little London lad realises Tejendra must have left it to him... him and only him. But what does it do?

Better to wonder what it doesn't do. The Infundibulum is thirty gigabytes of abstruse mathematics that even Everett has a hard time parsing. But thanks to his genius dad and his hacker DNA, he can, and he finds "a map to anywhere and everywhere. And it's much more than a map, it's a phonebook." A phonebook pre-loaded with the contact details for all the worlds in the Plenitude. Tejendra has only gone and discovered the existence of innumerable parallel universes!

And now Everett, following in his father's footsteps, is in possession of "the most important artefact in the multiverse," the selfsame program that he can only assume led to Tejendra's kidnapping. Someone wants the Infundibulum rather badly, Everett realises, but he isn't just going to hand it over to the people who kidnapped his dad. Somehow, he's going to figure out how to use it himself, to travel to another London... and another after that, and another, until in one - or another - his finds his father.
"It was a terrible plan, apart from all the others. But it was working. Little by little, clue by clue, it was working. It looked a lot more reasonable than taking the Ring to Mount Doom. Everett giggled. This was his very own dark tower."
And just think: the fun has hardly even begun.

From the get-go it's engaging, exciting — practically unputdownable. It begins with the rush of Tejendra's kidnapping, ends on an even greater high, and in the interim the pace rarely flags, as we travel with Everett to E3 in search of his father, a needle in a haystack full of needles with directions to other haystacks full of needles. There's not a dull moment as we hop around E3 on his canny coattails, from action scene to staggering set-piece and back just to start again from scratch.

It's a shame that McDonald doesn't give us the guided tour of a couple of other Londons than ours and theirs, which is all that Planesrunner entails, but the world of E3 is a winner in its own right: an eerily silent cityscape wherein humanity discovered electricity before coming to depend as we do on fossil fuels. 
"It was quiet. So quiet. Gone was the permanent internal-combustion growl of Everett's London, the shriek of brakes and the gasp of airbrakes. Here things hummed and purred on rubber-tyred wheels. [...] Electricity courses along the nerves of this London, through every city of this world, as the veins of Everett's home city were clogged with petroleum."
So E3 is a silent place, but not by any stretch a still city. Nor is it short of things with which to astound and amaze. There are pirates and airships and jump-guns and a sort of "United Nations for parallel universes," all rendered with such clarity that one begins to see pictures in place of McDonald's prose. Imagine the world of Chris Wooding's Tales of the Ketty Jay embellished with sparkling SF tech and an exquisite electropunk aesthetic; even then you're only coming close to the experience of E3.

In terms of character, too, Planesrunner impresses. Though he rarely puts a foot wrong, making this rather a linear narrative, admittedly, Everett isn't some superhuman saviour... just a geeky genius with tablet computer, some sweet software and a life-or-death impetus to make the right choices when crunch-time comes, as it does in every other chapter. In E3 Everett takes up with Sen Sixsmyth, the idiosyncratic daughter of the captain of the good ship Everness, pride of Hackney Great Port and the Airish. She is "a charmed child, a street saint," and though one immediately senses in her a love interest for Everett, thankfully McDonald is in no hurry to pair off his protagonists. Instead, Sen is in her free-wheeling element, leading Everett into and out of trouble with the Airish and the authorities alike. All heart and attitude and hard-won wisdom, Sen makes for an excellent counterpoint to Everett, who is contrast seems obvious, and methodical.

Planesrunner is but book one of Everness, and sometimes, sure, it feels like it. Several of its most promising story threads go nowhere - foremost amongst them the existence of a first Earth, or E1 in the lingo - and there are innumerable other instances of the author seeding this world of worlds with twists and intricacies as-yet untold. But you know what? Planesrunner is the first novel is a series, and if the second and the third and so on (and so fourth) are anything like as exhilarating as this, it's a series that stands to redefine award-winning author Ian McDonald's place in the multiverse of speculative fiction.



by Ian McDonald

UK Publication: January 2013, Jo Fletcher Books
US Publication: December 2011, Pyr

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Monday 30 January 2012

The Best Things In Life Are Free | Lavie Tidhar's Osama

In a world without global terrorism, Joe, a private detective, is hired by a mysterious woman to find a man: the obscure author of pulp fiction novels featuring one Osama Bin Laden, vigilante...

Intriguing, right? Intriguing to say the least.

Osama isn't Lavie Tidhar's latest, but it's been getting a lot of attention of late, in all the right places. The British Science Fiction Association have nominated it for Best Novel alongside the likes of Embassytown, By Light Alone and The Islanders... and one other book I clearly need to read, given the company it's keeping: Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith.

Meanwhile Osama is also up for a Red Tentacle over at Pornokitsch, where Anne has given it an incredible review.

So for the last little while I've certainly been interested to see what the big deal about Osama is for myself. Alas, the limited edition wasn't and isn't cheap, but for some reason - presumably to promote it - PS Publishing have slashed the price of the e-book right down. 

In fact, at the moment, on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, Osama is available to download onto your Kindles or computers for... free.

Click on through via the links above to have your copy "whispered" to you at no extra cost!

I can't yet speak to the quality of Osama myself, but I absolutely do trust the individuals and organisations who have recommended it, so I'm excited to start in on this thing now that the cost of laying hands on a physical copy is a non-issue. You really should be too.

Friday 27 January 2012

Video Game Review | The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, dev. Nintendo

I can map out my entire life with reference to The Legend of Zelda. At two years old I dare say I was a little little to care about the first game when it was released in 1986, but I did find my way back to it after adoring A Link to the Past in the early 90s, on the Super Nintendo I shared with my younger brother. Then in 1998, Ocarina of Time - arguably the pinnacle of the entire franchise, and assuredly the game that sold me on the series forever after - was released for the N64. I haven't missed a Zelda game since.

Which isn't to say I've finished them all, or even enjoyed them, every one. The Wind Waker, yes... and each of the subsequent handheld installments, from The Minish Cap in 2004 on through 2009's Spirit Tracks, not because they were particularly brilliant, but because there honestly wasn't a lot else for me to do with my DS.

Sadly I couldn't stand the awkward emo wolf-whispering of the last major game in the series, not to mention its ill-advised early motion controls. Twilight Princess was the only reason I bought a Wii, way back when, and I hold it solely responsible for all the garbage I've played on the system since.

Perhaps that's unfair of me. I mean, it did have its upsides: for one thing, it was in widescreen. Yay for widescreen! But when the best thing you can think to say about a game is that its aspect ratio was acceptable, methinks there's a larger problem in play. A larger problem that - alas - also pervades the first Zelda game designed from the ground up for the Wii, because of course Twilight Princess was essentially an ever-so-slightly upscaled Gamecube port. And it showed.

Anyway, let me be quite clear here: as staunch a defender of The Wind Waker as I am, Skyward Sword is easily the best console Zelda since Ocarina of Time. In fact, I think it might be a better game than either of the aforementioned candidates. So considered in isolation, it's rather a masterpiece; gorgeous given the limitations of the system - which I can finally sell on, now that I've played its swan song - and incredibly deep when you recall the one-note nonsense the console has become infamous for. If Skyward Sword is your first or your second or even your third Zelda game, you're going to love it. You are. And don't go telling me you're too old for baby games! You aren't, and in any event, this isn't that, so there.

But I began this review with a run-down of my experience of the series for a reason. Two reasons, even. In the first, I did so to stress that these games are exceedingly important to me, and to many other players like me. They're touchstones of a sort... landmarks by which we may measure the passing of generations, and I don't merely mean in terms of hardware. A new Zelda - and they are not so commonplace as all that: this is only the 8th console iteration in 25 years - so a new Zelda is a potential treasure... to look forward to, to love when the time comes, and to love looking back on after the fact. Or not, as was the case with Twilight Princess.

Largely, though, I started in this manner because, at least as I see it, the problem with The Legend of Zelda - specifically the problem with the latest incarnations thereof - is its legacy. A legacy that has touched me and millions of other gamers, large and small, but also a legacy that means that the developers of Skyward Sword are beholden to certain gameplay elements, narrative developments and indeed, an old-fashioned attitude: whimsical bordering on the nonsensical. In short, because of this legacy, the series has hardly changed since its inception a quarter of a century ago, when the vast industry of today was but a single pixel of a thing, and nostalgia can only transport one so far.

It would be unfair of me to say that there are no innovations in the latest Zelda game. Sure enough, there are a few new twists to turn, including the prevalence of Monster Hunter-esque collectibles around the three broad environments players will navigate over the course of their epic quests: bugs to be caught with your butterfly net, and rare drops which explode out of the family-friendly smoke that envelops dead enemies. Collect enough of these components and a man in Skyloft will use them to improve your equipment.

And there's lots of new equipment: a mechanical golden beetle you guide around in order to cut ropes or sever stalks, a vacuum cleaner you use to suck up piles of dust, and several other additions. Meanwhile most of your old favourites are back, including but not limited to the whip, the slingshot, the bow and arrow and the bomb bag. New or old, pretty much every gadget in this Link's inventory is implemented in an interesting way, up to and including the master sword, which one can loft for massive damage, or use in conjunction with a shield to parry and counter-attack.

It's no mad flurry of waggle either. Skyward Sword takes full advantage of the Motion Plus add-on it requires, and though I'd have appreciate alternative control options for several of the more finicky gadgets, most if not all of the array on offer work as advertised. Thus a sense of novelty will see you the first few hours you spend with each new piece of equipment, but eventually - indeed repeatedly - you realise you're still playing the same old game, just now with working motion control... and however functional they may be - and it bears saying that they were still more functional before the Wii had its wicked way - new controls do not a new game make.

In its own right, Skyward Sword is or is near-as-damnit the equal of the most memorable Zelda games in the series' whole history. It may very well be the best game on the Wii - in my mind only Super Mario Galaxy comes close to touching it - but if you're anything like me, once the nostalgia and then the novelty has worn off, you'll realise you've played it before. And that's fine, as far as it goes, except that Zelda deserves better.

Next time Nintendo makes one of these games, something's got to give. Whether it's the players or what they'll be playing remains to be seen - it could go either way - but take heart, as I do, in the fact that the series' creators seem uncharacteristically aware that they're this close to alienating the very gamers who made The Legend of Zelda such a success almost 25 years ago to this day. I can't give Skyward Sword a pass, exactly, but with that in mind, I am optimistic enough to refrain from damning it entirely.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Press Release Your Luck | The Angry Robot and The Open Door

Maybe we all have a novel in us - maybe, just maybe that's true - but there aren't many of us with agents, are there? And without an agent, our great works languish... unrepresented, unknown and unloved.

For fully two weeks a little later in 2012, all that is set to change. According to a press release I received yesterday, reproduced in full below, Angry Robot Books, in conjunction with their new YA-oriented imprint Strange Chemistry, is set to crack the floodgates a second time, after the success of its first Open Door Month. Read on:

During April last year, Angry Robot Books temporarily suspended its usual submission policy to run its first Open Door Month; accepting unsolicited, un-agented manuscripts from would-be genre fiction authors.

The scheme was a huge success: nearly 1,000 submissions resulted in publishing contracts for three authors - Cassandra Rose Clarke, Lee Collins, and Lee Battersby - and the commissioning of at least six brand new novels for publication for the Angry Robot lists in 2012 and 2013.

Today, Angry Robot are announcing that Open Door will return, with a second phase running from April 16th - April 30th 2012. During this frantic fortnight the floodgates will once more be opened to admit brand new work by hopeful (and, of course, hugely talented) writers from across the globe.

This time around, the rules are slightly different. Angry Robot will only be considering submissions that meet the following genre criteria:

a) Epic Fantasy - ideally with a bit of an edge or the sort of left-field twist the Angry Robot audience has come to expect.

b) YA - any subject welcome, but must be science fiction or fantasy, and intended for a Young Adult audience, for potential publication via Angry Robot's new Strange Chemistry imprint.

More details can be found at http://angryrobotbooks.com/opendoor

So consider yourself on notice, folks: if you've got a manuscript you want to dust off and polish up until it's positively a-glow, now would be the time.

This is of course a hell of an opportunity for the unagented among us, and three cheers to Angry Robot and our own Amanda Rutter's Strange Chemistry for giving peace, love and understanding a chance!

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Book Review | Unclean Spirits by M. L. N. Hanover

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Jayné Heller thinks of herself as a realist, until she discovers reality isn't quite what she thought it was. When her uncle Eric is murdered, Jayné travels to Denver to settle his estate, only to learn that it's all hers -- and vaster than she ever imagined. And along with properties across the world and an inexhaustible fortune, Eric left her a legacy of a different kind: his unfinished business with a cabal of wizards known as the Invisible College.

Led by the ruthless Randolph Coin, the Invisible College harnesses demon spirits for their own ends of power and domination. Jayné finds it difficult to believe magic and demons can even exist, let alone be responsible for the death of her uncle. But Coin sees Eric's heir as a threat to be eliminated by any means -- magical or mundane -- so Jayné had better start believing in something to save her own life.

Aided in her mission by a group of unlikely companions -- Aubrey, Eric's devastatingly attractive assistant; Ex, a former Jesuit with a lethal agenda; Midian, a two-hundred-year-old man who claims to be under a curse from Randolph Coin himself; and Chogyi Jake, a self-styled Buddhist with mystical abilities -- Jayné finds that her new reality is not only unexpected, but often unexplainable. And if she hopes to survive, she'll have to learn the new rules fast -- or break them completely....


If I had it in my power to mercy kill a single genre of fiction, I wouldn't hesitate. I'd put a bullet in paranormal romance, and dispose of its remains as rudely as possible.

Apropos of which: urban fantasy. Urban fantasy and paranormal romance are typically tarred with the same broad brush, not least by me... but slowly, but surely, I'm coming around. It helps not one whit that urban fantasies often feature, in a prominent role, some strain of the paranormal romance, meanwhile paranormal romances, for their pointed part, tend to take place in contemporary urban environments with a fantastical twist.

Confusing the two is an easy mistake to make; a lazy one, I dare say. They attract at least a superficially similar readership. Yet in the current climate, with these specific sub-genres on the ascent - arguably at the exponential expense of all others in speculative fiction - clarity is king, and an understanding of what sets the aforementioned pair apart is more vital now than it's ever been.

Let me begin this review in earnest, then, with an assurance: that Unclean Spirits by M. L. N. Hanover is not - I repeat not - a paranormal romance novel, and people like me, who would sooner suffer through water torture than read such a thing, need not fear.

That said, there's a love triangle. But, crucially I think, the love triangle isn't the point, the whole point, and nothing but the point, so help me God. Hanover handles this tryst - between our heroine Jayné Heller, Aubrey, the magical parasitologist she falls for, and Kim, Aubrey's not-quite-ex-wife - with almost none of the angst and melodrama that commonly characterise such situations in paranormal romance novels, and indeed, it isn't even remotely near the core of the story, neither narratively nor emotionally.

Unclean Spirits is about a disillusioned college dropout whose oddball uncle leaves her the keys to the proverbial kingdom upon his untimely passing. Admittedly, his (and now hers) is a kingdom scourged by Riders, loupine, and vârkolak -- which is to say demons, werewolves and vampires, but "don't let it bug you. Taxonomy's always a bitch," (p.152) isn't it?

In any event, Jayné inherits more than the discomfiting knowledge that these monsters are among us. She also comes into a substantial sum of money; an impressive property portfolio, with outposts around the world; a small team of specialists in all things otherworldly, including Aubrey, Midian, Chogyi Jake and Ex; oh, and the very vendetta that killed her uncle Eric. Jayné doesn't have time to take any of this in, alas, because evidently there's a high price on her head, and in short order she resolves to take the fight to her opponent's door.

"I looked at the window, and the darkness had made a mirror. Here was a woman on the trailing edge of twenty-two with no friends left. No family left. A shitload of money from nowhere, and the man who'd given it to her [...] had been murdered.

"I looked the same. Same dark eyes,. Same black hair. Same mole I'd always told myself I'd have taken off as soon as I had the tattoo removal done. But I wasn't the same. [...] Uncle Eric was dead. Someone had killed him. And I was going to find out who. Randolph Coin was the best lead I had. So that was the lead I'd follow." (p.50)

As evidenced above, there is a refreshing directness to Unclean Spirits, and a sense of inevitable momentum that rarely lets up. Hanover is a no nonsense author who doesn't pull his punches, condescend to his readers - whatever age or gender they may be - or overly romanticise his characters. Take Jayné: "My first kiss had been at the state qualifiers my sophomore year with a guy I'd met that night and never saw again. The next year, I'd arranged a plan with three of my friends that let me slip out to a movie with a guy from French class." (p.124)

Despite the title, then, this is not a book about purity, and to Hanover's great credit his almost disarming attitude holds true over the course of Unclean Spirits. Many moments come and go during which a less resolute author would have given in to temptation, the better to extract and exploit all the possible angst from any given encounter, but wisely, Hanover resists this impulse, so prevalent in the species of fiction we are currently considering.

No one sequence better exemplifies this restraint that the face-off between Jayné and Kim over Aubrey (see p.281), who hardly figures in to the bigger picture anyway. I'm sure you can imagine how indulgently a poor man's paranormal romance might render such a scenario, but in this smart urban fantasy it's no big thing. Jayné and Kim are just people being people, and there are other actual characters - actual characters as opposed to single-sided ciphers, you understand - amongst the cast of Unclean Spirits. Midian in particular is brilliant. He and his cohorts have real relationships rather than melodramatic arcs.

There is wit in this book. There is humour, and intelligence, and honesty, of all things. Truth be told I would expect no less from a pseudonym of Daniel Abraham, but I'm still somewhat surprised to find myself with so many nice things to say about this, the first novel in a series of four, as it stands. If there's a more versatile author than Daniel Abraham out there, excepting China Mieville, then I do not know his - or her - name.

So please: don't be put off by the bland cover art, or the uninspiring synopsis, and don't let the associations get to you. When approaching Unclean Spirits, think Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead of Twilight. And there are few higher recommendations in my book than that. 


Unclean Spirits
by MLN Hanover

UK Publication: January 2011, Orbit
US Publication: July 2009, Pocket Books

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Monday 23 January 2012

We Interrupt This Broadcast | Back From Bratislava

Hello again, boys and girls!

Feels like a lifetime has passed since we last chatted, doesn't it? Maybe that's just me. I have to remind myself that in reality it's only been two weeks. Two weeks during which I went to the ends of the earth, via Ryanair, and had a hell of a time to boot.

Bratislava was lovely, of course. Quite, quite lovely.

That is, for a city. You can only holiday in so many cities before they all start to look alike, but my fun-sized traveling companion and I made the best of it. We explored till our feet ached. We ate in all the vegetarian restaurants, and drank everywhere that sold Belgian beer. We saw the sights. We took a lot of terrible pictures. We got lost. We got our bearings again, and decided that the thing to do was to go to another city, in another country, and start the whole thing over.

So it was that we found ourselves in beautiful Vienna, in Austria...

But I won't go on. Long story short, a fine time was had by all involved. What with all the things there were to see and do and eat and drink, I didn't have as many opportunities to pull out a book as I had hoped.

Still, I got though a few. Three to be precise.

We'll talk more about those, in markedly more depth, in a bit. That's pretty much what I'm here for, after all... that and snark.

Sadly, I can't stop for long enough to do either thing justice today. More's the pity, instead of sitting here at home, blogging about my happy holidays, I've got to get right back into the thick of it. Paid employment and all that; the classes I teach have been on hold since shortly before Christmas, so it's past time for me to catch up with the wee ones.

Speaking of which, I've got lesson plans to get together, and I really just wanted to stop for a moment to say hey.

Hey! :)

Bear with me for another day or two, folks, and I'll get my head into the game again. Meantime, I've got one last ready-made review to share with you all, and lots of comments to catch up on in the interim, so stay tuned.

Friday 20 January 2012

Comic Book Review | Stephen King's N.

Even before it was published in its original nested text format, Marvel had bought the rights to adapt Stephen King's 'N.' and put the project to a dream-team of comic book and television talent, including Marc Guggenheim - co-creator of the sadly short-lived series Eli Stone - on script duties, with art by the notorious Brian Michael Bendis collaborator Alex Maleev, whose greatest claim to fame has to be his long run on Daredevil.

What resulted - a half-hour motion comic released in 25 miniscule installments to mobile phone owners and certain internet users - was one of the very first instances of a format that's come to some prominence in the years since. I do not say regrettably; I've never been able to see the appeal myself - to me, the motion comic feels like a halfway house between one medium and another, consistently cheap if only intermittently cheerful - but this form of faux-animation has its fans, and that's fine.

In any case, I lost interest in the webisodes quickly. Not because they weren't winningly written, or brilliantly illustrated - to the best of my recollection they were indeed all that - but because I have a moth's memory, and these things were so brief and broken-up I kept forgetting what in God's name was going on. I never revisited the aforementioned motion comic thereafter, but I did see this deliciously twisted tale through eventually -- by way of the originating short story, which was one of the highlights of Stephen King's terrific 2008 collection Just After Sunset.

Whether rendered in words or pictures, or some eldrich accumulation of the pair, 'N.' concerns a journalist, Charlie, who hears from a long-lost friend about the strange suicide of her husband, the psychoanalyst John Bonsaint. Bonsaint, we soon learn, was driven to despair and inevitably death in the selfsame way as his last patient: a man with debilitating OCD, known only as N. as per the doctor's notes. For his part, N. had become obsessed with a circle of standing stones in Ackerman's Field, in rural Motton, Maine, which he was convinced acted as a doorway to another world, from where something wicked - namely the helmet-headed Lovecraftian creature Cthun - will this way come.

Unless someone takes it upon themselves to stop it, that is.

N. does, and dies, and I need not add that his terrible obsession does not end with him. Far from it. Like a virus, it spreads to Bonsaint. Then the doctor's wife catches the bug from her husband, and she, in turn, passes it on to a reporter who becomes fixated on investigating these curious claims. That'd be Charlie, in whose company 'N.' both begins and ends.

Several years later, however, I'd forgotten almost all of the story beats above - a blessing and a curse if ever there was one - so when I heard Marvel had pulled the team behind the webisodes together again, to adapt their own adaptation into a proper comic book, at long last, well... I got my wallet out.

Now I've made some terrible decisions in my time. Once, I voted for Tony Blair, and on another occasion, I bet against Apple, because I couldn't begin to imagine a world without the Walkman. More fool me.

On the other hand, buying into N. again may be one of the best decisions I've made in recent memory, because readers... it's incredible. Without a doubt, Stephen King's N. is the most discomfiting graphic narrative I've encountered since coming back to comic books; it's a real creepshow, chilling and sinister in equal measure.

In the first, that's thanks to Marc Guggenheim: a very fine writer indeed. There's little room in this story for the light touch he's become known for - Stephen King's N. is not sweet but sour - yet herein Guggenheim demonstrates himself equally adept at the darker half of the author's art. Admittedly, some of his script is lifted verbatim from King's short story, but the larger part of it is original, and I would go so far as to say the changes Guggenheim makes add far more to the narrative than they subtract. The pacing is certainly better; the plot, so literal before, comes across more naturally; and the characters - more than names on pages in the originating fiction, but not much more - seem alive at long last.

Nested texts often come across as exercises in look-at-me literary trickery - more about the performance than the performed - and though 'N.' in its first form is an excellent example of said mode of storytelling, I think the beats of its harrowing narrative are rather better served herein than anywhere else. By expanding on the strictly epistolary short with naturalistic flashbacks and a focus on showing instead of telling, Guggenheim fleshes out the bare bones of the original story more to my satisfaction than Stephen King could.

Meanwhile, Alex Maleev. I've never been the biggest fan of his sketchy pencils, but they serve the story so incredibly well in Stephen King's N. that it'd be mean-spirited of me to do anything less than champion Maleev's contribution to this collection's manifest success. Specifically I should applaud his impeccable sense of composition, and his striking use of colour, as illustrated in the images above: of rich reds and warm oranges receding before a palette of clinical blues and greens and greys. It's exemplary stuff.

Though the narrative of 'N.' has gone from nested text to motion comic to graphic novel, Stephen King's N. as adapted by Marc Guggenheim and Alex Maleev is not some admission of defeat. Rather, it is a pitch perfect sequential rendering of a story which remains every bit as thrilling, gripping and magnificently sinister as it was four years ago. In short, I'd still recommend the original short... but I'd recommend this comic book more.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Book Review | The Kingdom of Gods by N. K. Jemisin

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For two thousand years the Arameri family has ruled the world by enslaving the very gods that created mortalkind. Now the gods are free, and the Arameri's ruthless grip is slipping. Yet they are all that stands between peace and world-spanning, unending war.

Shahar, last scion of the family, must choose her loyalties. She yearns to trust Sieh, the godling she loves. Yet her duty as Arameri heir is to uphold the family's interests, even if that means using and destroying everyone she cares for.

As long-suppressed rage and terrible new magics consume the world, the Maelstrom - which even gods fear - is summoned forth. Shahar and Sieh: mortal and god, lovers and enemies. Can they stand together against the chaos that threatens the kingdom of gods?


The end is the beginning is the end in the vast concluding volume of N. K. Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy, and how perfectly lovely it is to see this ambitious, if uneven romantic fantasy series come full circle.

But if a single shape could be said to define this story, it wouldn't, I assure you, be a circle. It'd be a triangle, with the requisite three points. One for each of The Three... remember them? Namely Nahadoth, the god of darkness and disorder; Bright Itempas, the god of light and law; and our own baby deity Yeine, which is to say the narrator of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, born again at the end of that celebrated debut as - you will recall - the embodiment of the dead god Enefna.

This otherworldly holy trinity are not quite reunited at the outset of The Kingdom of Gods, which occurs some hundred years after the events chronicled in The Broken Kingdoms - in short the penance of the traitor Itempas, who walks now among men, disabused of his heavenly powers except insofar as he chooses to use them in service of some greater good - but they are closer to becoming one than they have been in millennia. Good news for all involved... except the Arameri: the ruling class of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms who came to power centuries hence by binding Nahadoth - and his children - to their blood.

Of course now that Enefna has been restored, and Itempas cast out of Sky, the white city on the seat of the world tree, noble blood means nothing; or nothing good. "I was so used to thinking of the Arameri as powerful and numerous, but in fact they were dwindling. Dying." (p.145) With this fall from favour in mind, enter Sieh, the first child of the gods. The first child, full stop, so it is fitting that Sieh, the god of mischief, has taken on the form of a child since time immemorial, and also adopted the appropriate attitudes. He was the highlight of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and though his role in The Broken Kingdoms was regrettably reduced, in The Kingdom of Gods Sieh returns - and returns and returns! - as no less than our sole narrator.

It's a brave choice on the author's part, this foregrounding of a character you would think best served in small measures - and were he the same character, you'd be bang on - but then N. K. Jemisin has never seemed lacking in narrative ambition, and the Sieh she has us spend these 600-some pages with is both irrevocably changed in the early-going and altered little by little as time and The Kingdom of Gods toils on. Firstly he is made mortal, by some quirk of fate, and later rendered still more relatable, more like us, by love, the great leveller that has been both the bane of and a boon to this series.

The romantic aspects of this final volume function similarly. Sometimes they seem central to the emotional core of the story, indeed the series entire, but as often as not these preoccupations have felt superfluous; sex for the sake of some sex, and however exciting such scenes can be - though they can be excruciating, too - all the according angst errs on the truly tiresome. Particularly coming from a god, as in this case. But then "adolescence is all about making mistakes," (p.200) isn't it? And Sieh is finally growing up.

Thankfully The Kingdom of Gods has a lot of loose ends left to tie off, particularly after the leisurely interlude - the calm before the storm - that was The Broken Kingdoms. Thus there are many more meaningful threads in terms of character and narrative for Jemisin to address than the love life of a child older than time in the midst of a tryst of his own making. Indeed it's a testament to Jemisin's knack for storysmithing that this novel is as ordered and intelligible as it is, given all it must - and largely does - resolve.

Which is not to say the story's entirely over, as of this volume. In fact, after the last chapter, a coda seems to suggest a new beginning, and hot on the heels of the coda which concludes The Kingdom of Gods, lo and behold a deleted scene of sorts: a short story tellingly titled "Not the End."

And though I struggled with this series at the outset, with The Kingdom of Gods behind me now - a fitting, if familiar end to this award-winning trilogy - I kinda sorta hope it's not. 


The Kingdom of Gods
by N. K. Jemisin

UK & US Publication: October 2011, Orbit

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Monday 16 January 2012

Film Review | Super 8, dir. J. J. Abrams

I don't know what his actual involvement was behind the scenes - producer credits are about as anomalous as credits get - but Steven Spielberg's name features prominently in the marketing materials for Super 8, and even if he had nothing to do with it, this film owes such an incalculable debt to his definitive early efforts that had there not been some such tip of the 80s baseball cap, J. J. Abrams would probably have been looking at a lawsuit instead.

As Alasdair Harkness wrote in his review for The Scotsman - that is to say the actual newspaper - Super 8 is "the most authentic Spielberg film Spielberg never directed," which is one of those snappy summations I wish I'd come up with first. But I don't know that I'd agree with the rest of his write-up... particularly with the dismissive attitude Harkness adopts as regards Abrams' latest, the better to dovetail with the anecdote he seems determined to describe, of how J. J. Abrams met and emulated his hero You-Know-Who.

I would add, though I need not, that Harkness was far from the only critic to speak out against Super 8. In fact, though the reviews were almost uniformly glowing, at least on paper - the Tomatometer has it at 82% fresh at the time of this writing - looking through them, a worrying trend emerges: of tonally negative articles pared with positive scores. Positive, indeed near-perfect scores, because you'd have to be a completely off your rocker to conclude that Super 8 is anything less that pretty gosh-darned great.

So why the downturned tone? Because Super 8 is like a Steven Spielberg film? Well... sure, yes, absolutely. But so what if it is? How is that such a bad thing? Didn't the man make some great films, back in the day? And pray tell me: who's making them now? For the most part, Spielberg himself has long since graduated onto less commercial endeavours. There is thus a great gaping hole in the field of family-friendly films, and if anyone's up to filling it, it's J. J. Abrams. Super 8 is the proof of that pudding.

Leading a large and largely delightful cast, two young actors: newcomer Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb and Elle Fanning - Dakota's little sister, coming into her own after playing so many helpless children - as Alice Dainard. Joe is still coming to terms with the death of his mother, meanwhile his father Kyle has that to deal with, his job in the police force, and the responsibilities of being a single parent to boot. Needless to say, it's not been going great for either of the Lambs, but Joe at least finds a happy distraction in Alice, who he meets while helping his friend Charles Kaznyk (Riley Griffiths; a fine find) make an amateur zombie movie, in which Joe's kindred spirits - an unaccountably sad lass - is to star.

While they film a scene one evening, things take an unexpected turn when a train packed full of strange metal cubes - and TNT, apparently - crashes into a car parked on the tracks, and derails to the tune of ten thousand explosions. Thankfully the kids escape with hardly a scratch on 'em, and as luck would have it, they manage to capture the calamity on super 8. Little do they know their camera has also captured something else. Something... wicked?

Well, no. Not so much. Something misunderstood is more like it. But remember: it's the 70s. It's going to take three days and nights to develop their shocking home movie, and a lot can change in three days and nights, during which time the gang are as in the dark as anyone as to why the military have moved into Lillian, Ohio, or why people - people including one of their number - are suddenly going missing. Meanwhile a wildfire has caught, and it could burn their little town down to the ground.

There's conspiracy afoot in Super 8, impressive spectacle on a regular basis, a few cartoonish villains for us to love to hate, and, eventually, an extra-terrestrial too. Abrams direction is excellent, stylish but not so stylised as to take one out of the experience; the script - also by Abrams - is sound, if somewhat obvious on occasion, most egregiously in the movie's lastmost moments; and the effects, from the train derailment on out, look exceedingly expensive... which is to say good. The story is engaging, the characters are endearing, and the pacing is perfect. In short, Super 8 is classic family filmmaking.

It's also The Goonies meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with lens flare everywhere. The debt it owes to Steven Spielberg, not to mention Superman man Richard Donner, is felt in almost every frame, but I won't agree that that's an issue in and of itself. We are not, as an audience, somehow better than such things these days, or better at such things, and if that misguided notion isn't the cause of all the mean-spiritedness surrounding Super 8, then I don't know what is. 

So Super 8 isn't particularly profound - specifically the subtext about learning to let go is a superficial sham - and it isn't any sense original, either, but nor is it dumb, or dull, or insultingly derivative. In fact I dare say it's a good movie. A very good movie, actually. But if it's one of the best films of 2011, and at a push, I think it probably is, then that's primarily because 2011 was such a stinker of a year at the cinema.

Friday 13 January 2012

Book Review | The Broken Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

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In the city of Shadow, beneath the World Tree, alleyways shimmer with magic and godlings live hidden among mortalkind.

Oree Shoth, a blind artist, takes in a homeless man who glows like a living sun to her strange sight. However, this act of kindness is to engulf Oree in a nightmarish conspiracy. Someone, somehow, is murdering godlings, leaving their desecrated bodies all over the city.

Oree's peculiar guest is at the heart of it, his presence putting her in mortal danger - but is it him the killers want, or Oree? And is the earthly power of the Arameri king their ultimate goal, or have they set their sights on the Lord of Night himself?


I did not adore The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in the manner many critics did. As a first novel, yes, it impressed in some respects, and I still stand in admiration of N. K. Jemisin's very elegant voice, but beyond that her award-winning debut was such a slight thing that I came away from it deeply uncertain of the sequel.

The Broken Kingdoms, thank the Gods, is no mere retread of its highly-held predecessor. In fact it turns on its head the equation that so surprised me about book one of The Inheritance Trilogy: where The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was fantastical romance, up to and including the most cringe-worthy sex scene I've encountered in some time, The Broken Kingdoms is romantic fantasy, with a wider focus on the world, and a perspective that actively earns our empathy, rather than expects it.

It's better, all told; much better. But it's not perfect.

Ten years on from the events of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the Arameri - the ruling class of this sprawling continent, oriented around a vast tree whose branches crack the skies - still cling perilously to power, despite the source of their power having fallen, quite literally, from grace. Where once the Gods lived under sufferance, at the beck and call of Arameri fullbloods by dint of a falling-out between order and chaos - as embodied by Itempas and Nahadoth - Yeine's climactic ascendancy, to share body and soul with the dead God Enefna, has tipped the balance in the Darklord's favour.

So it is that Itempas, bringer of the Bright, around whom the predominant religion in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was ordered, was cast out of Sky, and the heavens entire. As the godling Madding explains: "Nahadoth wanted to kill him... after what he'd done. But the Three created this universe; if any one of them dies, it all ends. So he was sent here [to Shadow], where he can do the least damage... Maybe, somehow, he can get better. See the error of his ways. I don't know." (p.139)

Shadow is the shanty city built around the roots of the world tree, on which Sky sits. A decade ago, it was the closest most folks ever got to the Gods, but now, with Itempas made a mere man of, and Nahadoth and Yeine watching over the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms - and beyond! - godlings like Madding are everywhere. Some live like mortals, and take mortal lovers, reveling in the wonders of the world denied them for millennia. On Madding's arm - on it and off it, that is - we come, at last, to Oree Shoth, The Broken Kingdoms' substitute protagonist.

Oree is "a woman plagued by gods," (p.15) and she doesn't just mean Madding. Blind since birth, but able to see magic, some years ago she came to Shadow from Maroneh, a far-flung kingdom on its last legs, the better to see what magic there was to be seen. Of course it's everywhere, now, so Oree - an artist who makes ends meet selling trinkets to tourists - is not entirely surprised when she comes across a godling in a muckbin:

At first I saw only delicate lines of gold limn the shape of a man. Dewdrops of glimmering silver beaded along his flesh and then ran down it in rivulets, illuminating the texture of skin in smooth relief. I saw some of those rivulets move impossibly upward, igniting the filaments of his hair, the stern-carved lines of his face.

As I stood there, my hands damp with paint and my door standing open behind me, forgotten, I saw this glowing man draw a deep breath - which made him shimmer even more beautifully - and open eyes whose colour I would never be able to fully describe, even if I someday learn the words. The best I can do is compare it to things I do know: the heavy thickness of red gold, the smell of brass on a hot day, desire and pride.

Yet, as I stood there, transfixed by those eyes, I saw something else: pain. So much sorrow and grief and anger and guilt, and other emotions I could not name because when all was said and done, my life up to then had been relatively happy. There are some things one can understand only by experience, and there are some experiences no one wants to share. (pp.16-17)

Oree takes this heaven-sent creature into her home, calls him Shiny in lieu of a proper introduction - he doesn't speak at all, you see - and in so doing becomes embroiled in a conflict as old as time that will change her life forever after... that is if she still has a life left to live, by the end of The Broken Kingdoms.

Meanwhile, someone, or something, is murdering godlings, one by one. Which should be impossible. But then, what about this world is as it should be?

By now you're probably confused. That's all right; so was I. The problem wasn't just my misunderstanding - though that was part of it - but also history. Politics. The Arameri, and maybe the more powerful nobles and priests, probably know all this. I'm just an ordinary woman with no connections or status, and no power beyond a walking stick that makes an excellent club in a pinch. I had to figure everything out the hard way. (p.59)

The single greatest issue I raised with regards to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was its cipher of a central character, Yeine, and though she and Oree may seem of a similar sort, on the surface, certain crucial differences exist to differentiate The Broken Kingdoms' narrator from last time's lady-in-waiting. Whereas Yeine was summoned to the world tree, Oree comes of her own free will; and while Yeine took up in Sky upon her arrival, among the privileged and the decision-makers, Oree makes her humble home in Shadow, with the common man.

Both characters have an inheritance to come into, of course, but though Oree's eventual destiny is not so shattering as Yeine's, The Broken Kingdoms is in sum a better book than the first of this trilogy for its modesty, for its restraint in that respect... not least because the careful reader will have an easier time believing in Oree than Yeine, who seemed utterly unaffected by this strange new world, as new to her at the outset of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as it was to us.

So too is the fact of gods walking among us much more meaningful in The Broken Kingdoms, particularly given the ease with which Yeine fell into bed with Nahadoth in book one of The Inheritance Trilogy. Here, however, the reader inherits Oree's reverence for these mysterious, magical creatures, whose actions feel all the more extraordinary for her particular perspective.

And the world feels fuller, finally. You will recall that almost the entirety of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms took place among the Arameri in Sky; an interesting enough setting in itself, if rather simplistic. Similarly, the events of The Broken Kingdoms occur almost exclusively in Shadow... the yin to Sky's yang, or vice versa. Thus Shadow gives welcome context to Sky, placing it - and us - more firmly in the world.

In The Broken Kingdoms, by upping the fantasy quotient of the larger narrative and simultaneously scaling back its more romantic aspects, and giving readers a less convenient, but more appropriate central character to invest in, N. K. Jemisin addresses many of the issues I had with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It follows, then, that I appreciated this sequel a great deal more comprehensively than I did her debut.

But The Broken Kingdoms introduces a new problem to the tally, and it is a problem related to the thing I most admired about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: namely the beauty of Jemisin's voice. Which is to say, word for word, The Broken Kingdoms seems a less considered narrative than its predecessor... imprecise and occasionally clumsy where the author seemed so assured before. Still more damningly, though Oree is - as discussed - a character distinct from Yeine, their witty, flippant, passionate, first-person narrations are almost identical in form and tone, with little to distinguish one from the other.

The Broken Kingdoms is a solid, if stylistically indistinct sequel which improves on The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in every other sense. Truth be told I came to it expecting more of the same, and though there's absolutely an element of that, it's the same but better; improved in every which way but the one. To wit, bring on The Kingdom of the Gods... which I'll be approaching with far higher hopes than I bore to The Broken Kingdoms. 


The Broken Kingdoms
by N. K. Jemisin

UK Publication: November 2010, Orbit
US Publication: September 2011, Orbit

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