Wednesday 29 February 2012

Book Review | Corvus by Paul Kearney


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It is twenty-three years since a Macht army fought its way home from the heart of the Asurian Empire. The man who came to lead that army, Rictus, is now a hard-bitten mercenary captain, middle-aged and tired. He wants nothing more than to lay down his spear and become the farmer that his father was. But fate has different ideas. A young war-leader has risen to challenge the order of things in the very heartlands of the Macht. A solider of genius, he takes city after city, and reigns over them as king. What is more, he has heard of the legendary leader of The Ten Thousand.

His name is Corvus, and the rumours say that he is not even fully human. He means to make himself absolute ruler of all the Macht. And he wants Rictus to help him.


It is all too easy for those of us who live in the past’s long shadow to fall into the trap of thinking history a particularly passive pursuit. The preserve of academics and ancients, with long books and longer beards.

But no.

Maybe now, but in the thick of it, I think not, because history does not simply happen: it is made. It is shaped. Created, and then, over time, finessed into fineness, like a spearpoint thrust through the years. As to those who hone history - just so - they do not somehow stand outside of it. On the contrary, they become a part of it. In a very real sense, these men and women of whispered myth and inherited legend become history, and not always to their credit, nor indeed their pleasure.

Rictus is one such specimen. Twenty-odd years on from the great tale of the Ten Thousand – in which an army of Macht mercenaries that he led (towards the end) fought into and inevitably out of the vast continent beyond the hills of the Harukush – Rictus, to his chagrin, has become as much myth as man. As his friend and fellow soldier Fornyx marvels:

“What you saw, in your youth. The places you marched, the world you wandered across. You were part of a legend, Rictus, and you saw sights few of the Macht have ever imagined. The land beyond the sea, and the Empire upon it. For all of us it is nothing more than a story, or the words in a song. But you were there.”

He was there, yes. This much is indisputable. But Rictus is one of a rare few who remembers what it was to be in the midst of that mess of men. He remembers “the shattering heat of those endless days on the Kunaksa hills, the stench of the bodies. The shrieking agonies of the maimed horses. And the faces of those who had shared it with him. Gasca, dead at Irunshahr [and] Jason, whom he had loved like a brother, who had come through it all only to be knifed in a petty brawl in Sinon, within sound of the sea.” It was not such a pretty picture, whether then or in memory.

In any case, Rictus has moved on. Hardly a young man when the Ten Thousand marched, he has since grown old, made a home, and fallen in love with a family fashioned from both blood and the brotherhood of battle. Summers he still spends campaigning for coin with his Dogsheads, an army of motley mercenaries in an age with no seeming need for real redcloaks... but this matters little to Rictus. After all, he lives now for winters, when he can come back to Aise and Rian and Ona on the farm, and set his spear by the door.

Rictus dreams of the day when he can put his weapon away for good, but that day is not this day, because this winter, Rictus returns home to find rumour rife. There is talk – endless spoken speculation – about a man called Corvus, a would-be conqueror named after “a black carrion bird” who has blazed a trail inland from Idrios, declaring himself overlord of all the Macht cities whose armies he has effortlessly overcome. His next stop is likely to be Hal Goshen, which stands barely a handful of pasangs away from Rictus’ farm.

So, something wicked this way comes? Well... Corvus – if he exists – is either something wicked, or something wickedly different, but whatever his purpose, whatever his principles, Rictus doesn’t intend to involve himself in this murderous myth-making. He’s secured his place in the history books already.

But then, cruel and unusual, the rumour comes a-calling: Corvus and a centon of his men arrive at Rictus’ homestead, and pressgang the old legend into service. With his family in immediate danger, Rictus has little choice in the matter... and sure, he’s curious too. Passing fascinated with this powerful young man who seems to be “standing on the threshold of some change in the world,” just as Rictus did in his youth. Corvus, as it transpires, does not make war in order to destroy the Macht, but to finally unite this fragmented force. If he succeeds, the Macht will be one people for the first time since time immemorial. This is another chapter of history in the making, and Rictus, though older and wiser, is old enough now, and just wise enough, to know it. Thus, he takes up his spear, and marches mercilessly – with the Dogsheads and many other thousands of men – on his own people, side by side with this strangely persuasive invader.

Corvus may take place in the same timeline as The Ten Thousand, and star the same central character, but – and here rears a more meaningful inheritance – it is a remarkably self-contained story. What the reader needs know about its predecessor, Paul Kearney imparts precisely, concisely. Even at the outset of this summarily standalone sequel the events of The Ten Thousand have faded to myth and old man’s memory, such that returning readers and complete newcomers will be equally well met, and warmly welcomed besides, because Corvus is a markedly more intimate novel than the first volume of this disparate trilogy.

The return to Rictus’ perspective is like coming home to gruff uncle, worn and torn by a long war abroad, but no less beloved for his far-distant hardships, meanwhile Kearney spends a pleasantly surprising span attending to matters of character, little and large alike. Assuredly, our main man and the unstoppable invader occupy the larger part of the limelight, but Aise also has an arc, as do various players on the other side of the divide, like Kassia, Kassander, and particularly Karnos, a common man’s man who single-handedly raises an army to stand against Corvus.

It would be unfair to say that The Ten Thousand lacked character, exactly, but Kearney’s considerations are certainly more minute herein than as regards the mass of mercenaries from the last part. Where its antecedent revolved around immense armies, Corvus is concerned with individuals, so there is an easier foothold for the reader from the offing, and a gathering impression of personal jeopardy as the narrative inches on... but I’m afraid it also follows that the big picture appears a little diminished. Furthermore, this sequel is somewhat less... eventful than The Ten Thousand: of the two big ol’ battle scenes – already a scant number next to the innumerable encounters strung together in book one – only the second, a long siege on a comparatively complicated battlefield, feels genuinely momentous. Tragic, in fact, because even here Kearney punctuates the Macht’s phalanx fighting with a more discrete dilemma, which – to twist the knife one final time – occurs mere minutes away from the frontlines.

The storm of Corvus’ last gasping act is as harrowing as it is exhilarating, then, in large part thanks to the character-focused calm before, during and after it. The author’s willingness to wholeheartedly savage his supporting cast is important, but without the emotional moments aforementioned, the cacophony of noise which concludes Corvus would have been a fraction as impactful, with little meaning to speak of beyond the visceral immediate experience. This, as I see it, has always been the single most significant issue of histories: lacking little guys with little problems – without context, and character – the big pictures they present often err on the unfathomable. In Corvus, however, Kearney brings his players home handily. What with its far narrower focus, it may be a surprising species of successor to a tale of The Ten Thousand’s scope and scale, but be assured that we have here a truly bravura book, as ambitious in its way as the magnificent myth before it.


by Paul Kearney

UK and US Publication: October 2010, Solaris

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Tuesday 28 February 2012

Giving the Game Away | Win One of Three Complete Sets of The Macht Saga

Perhaps you've read Paul Kearney before... or perhaps you haven't. Maybe you've wondered about The Macht saga from afar, or ogled the omnibus editions of The Monarchies of God and wondered: would I like this?

Well yes, you would. Or at the very least, you should. I don't think it's spoiling the reviews of Corvus and Kings of Morning you'll be seeing from me subsequently to say that they're terrific books, to a one. Reading through these three volumes over the past three weeks has been a beautiful, bloody, bittersweet experience, and I'm officially on board with whatever Kearney writes next. Up to and including this Spartacus tie-in.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet, because in a rare turn of events, I've got some books to give away. I enjoyed this series so much that I wanted to get it into the hands of a few good folks, and Solaris have been more generous than I could have hoped for. They've offered not one, not two, but three complete sets of all three volumes of The Macht saga.

Which is to say, if you can answer this simple question correctly, you'll be in with a chance of winning copies of The Ten Thousand, Corvus and Kings of Morning, which hasn't even been released yet, here in the UK.

You don't have to be British to stand a chance, either! Entries are welcome from the UK, the US, and Europe too. All you have to do tell me:

Which of the United Kingdoms
does Paul Kearney come from?

Simple, isn't it? And if you're not so sure, you'll find the answer somewhere in the text of yesterday's review of The Ten Thousand.

All I'd ask is that you send along your guesses to thespeculativescotsman [at] gmail [dot] com and mark you subject headers "The Macht Saga".

I'm going to let this one run for a week at least, so there's time to get your entries in, and then tell your friends so they can try their hands as well. At the end of that period, our lucky winners will be picked at random, as ever, to the envy of everybody who isn't one.

That's it! Go on, now. You know you want to... and if you don't, well, I beg to differ. :P

### EDIT @16:47 ###

Actually, that thing about a Spartacus tie-in? Turns out that's Amazon trying to make a monkey of me: it's being written by a Mark Morris, and the page only updated today. Never mind I've been secretly excited about it for months.

Anyway, go go giveaway!

Monday 27 February 2012

Book Review | The Ten Thousand by Paul Kearney

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On the world of Kuf, the Macht are a mystery, a seldom-seen people of extraordinary ferocity and discipline whose prowess on the battlefield is the stuff of legend. For centuries they have remained within the remote fastnesses of the Harukush Mountains. In the world beyond, the teeming races and peoples of Kug have been united within the bounds of the Asurian Empire, which rules the known world, and is invincible. The Great King of Asuria can call up whole nations to the battlefield. His word is law.

But now the Great King's brother means to take the throne by force, and in order to do so he has sought out the legend. He hires ten thousand mercenary warriors of the Macht, and leads them into the heart of the Empire.


War. War never changes.

Of course, one could as easily – and as righteously – state that war changes everything.

In The Ten Thousand, the ugly truth – and indeed, it is a fearsome-looking thing in this book, and this series, the truth – lies sprawled and spewing somewhere in the midst of this blood-muddied mulch:

"The army marches, there is a slaughter, and a form of words is made to make the world change. But the world does not change; the water still flows, the seeds still sprout, and those who work the soil continue to work it, a little poorer, a little thinner and sadder than before. The storm moves on, and in its wake the world goes once more about its business. This is war, this passing storm on the land. This stink on the air, this dust-cloud which hems the sky. These creatures marching in their thousands, changing everything and changing nothing with their passage. This is war."

These creatures, as Northern Irish author Paul Kearney has it, are the Macht, "a seldom seen people of extraordinary ferocity and discipline whose prowess on the battlefield is the stuff of legend," and the Macht live to fight: to triumph against the enemy, or die well (if one can possibly die in such a fashion, and there are no guarantees here) in the trying.

They have warred with the vast Asurian Empire before, have the Macht, only to be beaten back by an overwhelming force, and some centuries have passed since they dared cross the sea to meet their sworn enemies in battle. They've occupied themselves with feudal in-fighting in the interim; a meaningless business, given the greater threat, but a business it is, for the Macht are a mercenary folk, by and large. Small armies exist here and there, but most of the Macht's fighting forces are united under the crimson rather than some cause: a colour beholden to no better motivation than gold – and where there is demand, it follows that there must be a supply to meet it, or exceed it.

To wit, The Ten Thousand begins, in earnest, in the immediate aftermath of one such clash: with a sole survivor – Rictus – of the rape of his great city, Isca. Having failed to beat back the attackers, the strawhead’s only hope is for a good death, but in the process of earning one, an admiring opponent grants him an unexpected reprieve.

Rictus lives on, then – and it's as well, for he is our through-line from first to last in the ambitious narrative Paul Kearney tells in The Ten Thousand, and beyond – but for now, he has nothing. He is "alone. Cityless. Ostrakr." And exiles such as he "sometimes chose suicide rather than wander the earth without citizenship. To the Macht, the city was light and life and humanity. Outside, there was only this: the black pines and the empty sky, the world of the Kufr. A world that was alien."

All Rictus has to hold on to hereafter is the colour: the crimson of the mercenary men he aims to join, alongside another young soldier he meets on the road to Machran, where he and Gasca are hired. Their mission is a mysterious one, to begin with – the force mustering in this city is large enough to seize even Machran, the capital of these fragmented lands (if capital it has) – but soon they take to the sea, these ten thousand men, with Rictus and Gasca in their midst. And when at last land is sighted, it is the land of the Kufr, of course.

In this kingdom across the sea, you see, a rebellion is afoot. The Great King's brother Arkamenes means to seize the throne by force, and to that end he has called upon the legendary forces of the Macht. With his inexhaustible riches he has bought these mythical mercenaries, these businessmen who deal in death, and they have been paid handsomely; some of the men certainly have their qualms as regards the march to the Asurian capital, where Arkamenes means to take Ashurnan's place, yet the bottom line is solid, so they keep their concerns to themselves.

I would not hesitate to say that the Macht are an incredible creation, except that they are not an original creation so much as a tremendous and oddly timely recreation, given the present-day relevance and prevalence of PMCs: of a factual historical force – aking to the 300 Frank Miller and latterly Zack Snyder recently repopularised – which waged the self-same campaign we find the Macht engaged in amid this low fantasy landscape. These Greek mercenaries were also known as the Ten Thousand, and by way of Xenophon's Anabasis – that bastion of classical Socratic philosophy as it relates to the subjects of government and leadership – they can be traced back to fully four centuries before the common era. Paid in full, they took to Persia – enemy territory, in other words – under the orders of Cyrus the Younger, who planned to force his way into power over the entire Achaemenid Empire.

The tale did not end well. Cyrus was killed in the great battle at Babylon, and the Ten Thousand whose fate you will find discussed in the history books were stranded, now leaderless and practically purposeless, deep in the realm of their old enemy. This marching republic, for so it was, had to take charge of themselves thereafter, and a similar, if not identical conundrum awaits the Ten Thousand of Paul Kearney's darkly fantastic fictionalisation.

Considering how closely The Ten Thousand follows Xenophon's account of the originating events, the most significant narrative beats of Kearney's inspired adaptation will be familiar – perhaps to a fault – to an audience who know the story, but even these readers are apt to be impressed, because there is a richness and a texture to this rendering that the renowned record is largely absent, never mind its seven fulsome volumes, or its contemporary currency in academic circles. Like the revolutionary mercenary army at its heart, The Ten Thousand is a "picture brought bright and colourful out of myth," brilliantly depicted and embellished in all the right ways by its ambitious author, a former history student himself.

Heedless of whether Kearney created them whole-cloth or not – and to a certain extent of course he has – the Macht are truly an awesome force to behold:

"They raised a dustcloud behind them, a tawny, leaning giant, a tolling yellow storm bent on blotting out the western sky. It seemed a nation on the march, a whole people set on migrating to a better place. The sparse inhabitants of the Gadinai drew together, old feuds forgotten, and watched in wonder as the great column poured steadily onward, as unstoppable as the course of the sun. It was as grand as some harbinger or the world's end, a spectacle even the gods must see from their places amid the stars."

Perhaps the most remarkable thing Kearney brings to the table – a table sumptuously laid in any case – is his characterisation of the Macht as mercenaries; as men going about the business of making money above all else. As beaten but not broken soldiers of fortune as opposed to idealistic war-makers, I know of no equal for them in fantasy fiction. As one spearman asserts:

"There was no extravagance to the fighting; no glory, Gasca realised. These men were doing their job. They were at work. They did not raise battle-cries, or scream curses. They pushed with their comrades, they looked for openings, and they stabbed out with a swift, economic energy, like herons seeking minnows. [...] The Kefren could not match this remorseless efficiency."

Meanwhile another observer, the Great King himself, notes that:

"Their bronze was different. Ashurnan could not quite puzzle it out, until he realised that it was old metal, tarnished and dimmed. These man had carried their harness a long time. It was not a matter or burnishing; it was a matter of years. And there was no decoration to it. They did not take joy in their turn-out. They wore their panoplies with all the pride and elan of labourers set to a day's heavy shifting. Ashurnan's mouth began to sneer under the komis as he regarded them, and then his lips straightened. Their formation was perfect, as though someone had gone running along their front with a plumb line. They stood at ease, almost unmoving. [...] They seemed almost bored."

You could sharpen a spear on Kearney's prose, so pointed is it, yet at times it is poetic as well; as above, so below. Meanwhile the author builds his world brilliantly – majestically, but not oppressively – atop the foundations of a true story, terrific in its own right. The pace is perfect, and the pitch is too, to boot. Though his characterisation of certain purveyors of the ensemble of perspectives on offer herein could be better – I speak of Gasca and Tiryn specifically – I do not think that The Ten Thousand need necessarily look to individuals to make its indelible mark. The power it possesses, and the gruesome scar it carves, is not the result of any one man, after all, but ten thousand of them... armed to the teeth and armoured from head to toe, warring for a wage.

Even if grim militaristic fantasy like this isn't your usual purview, please: take a chance on The Ten Thousand. Unlike the men of the Macht, and their historical equivalents, you've little other than time to lose. The series certainly continues in Corvus, to conclude in Kings of Morning, but The Ten Thousand was originally conceived as a standalone narrative rather than the first volume in a trilogy, and it functions as such. If "black flies laying their eggs in the eyes of the dead" and the like prove too much for you, then no harm, no foul... you need not read on.

If you have the stomach for it, however, you won't be able to stop yourself, because for what it is, even if what it is is not for everyone, The Ten Thousand is an utterly gripping reading experience. Powerful... poignant... profound, even.


The Ten Thousand
by Paul Kearney

UK and US Publication: September 2008, Solaris

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Thursday 23 February 2012

Film Review | Take Shelter, dir. Jeff Nichols

There's a storm coming. And not just any old whip of wind and water: the storm. The perfect storm. An unfathomable maelstrom of gale and tornado, thunder and lightning, with its unseeing sights set on home sweet home. For one family, it could mean the end of everything.

There's a storm coming. Curtis knows it. He knows he knows it. He's seen it, even... in dreams; smelt it and felt it in harrowing nightmares he's been having night after night, during which he loses everyone he loves. He envisions his beautiful wife Samantha lost to the storm, and then, worst of all, he watches it take his dear deaf daughter Hannah. And then he wakes.

Curtis will do anything and everything in his power to protect his family from the storm, but what storm is that, exactly? No-one else can even bring themselves to consider that there might be something coming, so when Curtis begins to build an expensive storm shelter in the back yard - risking his job, his home and the health insurance that's going to pay for the expensive surgery Hannah needs in the process - people start talking, and not in a nice way. Tongues wag, and soon the community rounds on Curtis, sure that he's lost his mind... like his mother, who was institutionalised in her 30s with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

This, Curtis realises, is a very real possibility. But he's still having the dreams, and they're as real as anything else in the quiet life he leads. He can't simply ignore them, can he? What if they're a warning he doesn't heed, and his wife and daughter are the price he'll have to pay for his arrogance?

Take Shelter could be a little sharper off the starting mark, sure, but I beg you: batten down the hatches and bear with it, because in every other respect it's an incredibly thoughtful thriller. Tense, gripping, and intelligent, Take Shelter is as much a meditation on mental illness as it is a film about survival. It is about a family holding onto one another for dear life as dear life takes them for an almighty ride, which they might not all see the end of.

A palpable and powerful sense that something's not quite right pervades Take Shelter from the first. Exactly what it is that's amiss takes a little long too come clear, as aforementioned, but from the moment Curtis starts to unravel on through to Take Shelter's unforgettable final frame, writer/director Jeff Nichols is in impeccable control of his narrative, and his characters. The story is spun slowly, but just so, meanwhile the husband and wife at its deceptively silent heart come into their own - whether towards or at odds with one another - to tremendous effect.

On a not unrelated note: both of the leads turn in truly bravura performances. As a man out of step with his sanity, whose mind and body have begun to rebel against him, Michael Shannon is intense, unselfconscious and brilliantly unreadable. You won't be able to look away as Curtis comes apart, nor indeed as Samantha calmly and then frantically tries to keep the fraying ends of her husband in some semblance of order. Jessica Chastain, for her part, spends perhaps a disproportionate amount of time preparing food, but her character's support of her husband through these hardships is the emotional core of the role. Her patience, her anxieties and her attempts to understand Curtis' break are not easy things to convey, but Chastain internalises her struggles incredibly. She's a perfect foil for an ideal character actor.

Without these powerful performances, Take Shelter would only have been a fraction of the film it is, but the leads are not the only reason it soars so. Writer/director Jeff Nichols cut his teeth on 2007's terrific Shotgun Stories - another Michael Shannon-starrer - and he carries over more than that movie's smouldering main man. His script is spare, and sure-footed; he has refined the relentlessness of his first film into a more manageable sense of the tense; and though Take Shelter's pacing is not without its own issues, it's certainly an improvement over the infrequent unevenness of Shotgun Stories. Jeff Nichols, I think, is a filmmaker to watch like a hawk.

Take Shelter would have been worthy of applause for its ineffably sensitive treatment of mental illness alone, but that idea of restraint, of the unspoken things we think, also parlays into the stunning central characters, and the gathering narrative. In the end, there's so much more to this movie than a man and some worrisome weather. That the Academy opted to overlook Take Shelter and its breathtaking array of talent so that the likes of War Horse and George Clooney could have a nomination is absolutely damning, to all involved in this latest shameful oversight.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Comic Book Review | Northlanders Vol. 2: The Cross + The Hammer

Late last year I reviewed the first volume of Northlanders, Brian Wood's Viking comic book. You can read all about it here.

In short, I found Sven the Returned to be brash, ugly and unduly brutal, but at the same time, kinda compelling. Deadwood with Norsemen instead of outlaws, and axes over six-shooters... though that's giving it more credit than I expect it deserves. In his first unnecessarily protracted arc, about a lone wolf's war on the evil uncle who'd hijacked his inheritance, Wood attempted nothing so ambitious as David Milch did. 

On the surface, Northlanders is all change as of The Cross + The Hammer, which is to say the second trade paperback collection of the series: there's a new artist - great at landscapes but lacking, I'm afraid, in the action department - a whole new story and a new central character. All appear to be huge upheavals, but however ostensibly different The Cross + The Hammer seems from Sven The Returned, I found the two books to be of a very similar spirit.

In Clontarf, in Viking-occupied Ireland, a spate of vicious killings has finally attracted the attention of the country's impromptu monarch. Someone - some gang of organised Irish rebels, by all appearances - is murdering the king's men, and only the king's men. Needless to say, this does not please the king, but he has kingly business to attend to - a war, amongst other things - so in his stead he sends Ragnar, a specialist hunter and killer of men, to put a stop to this insidious tyranny.

Curious and curiouser: when Ragnar arrives in Clontarf, in the first of the six single issues The Cross + The Hammer collects, he finds evidence that suggests they need trap only one man. But what kind of man must their mark be, to have slayed so many, and lived to keep killing?

Well he is a father, first and foremost: Magnus Rodain's life's work, as he sees it, has been about making Ireland a safer place for his little girl, Brigid, who travels with him, and indeed supports his every decision. This - Brigid's unquestioning willingness to hop along happily to the tune her father hums, despite all the awful things Magnus does supposedly in service of her future - this was the first of a few niggling issues I had with The Cross + The Hammer, and not the last.

In fact the last, if not the least or the most egregious, was the way Wood addresses the very problem I've just named and shamed. It beggars belief that Brigid comes to her father's aid after he's butchered an entirely innocent family because he was in a bad mood, certainly, but compared to the Shyamalanish reveal in the penultimate part, it makes perfect sense.

Between the first problem and that last, those reservations I have about The Cross + The Hammer will be familiar to anyone who read my early review of Sven the Returned. Most notably, there's an awful lot of wasted space on the page - in every issue an overabundance of wide or tall panels, and far too many splashes and spreads - such that reading this series on a monthly basis must have been particularly trying. With an entire arc gathered together like this the experience is markedly more tolerable, but you'll still make short work of it. There's perhaps than an hour's worth of reading in The Cross + The Hammer, give or take, so buy in with that in mind, if you're inclined to buy in at all.

And you know, I still think you should. Assuredly Northlanders would be a better book if it were a little less barren, especially if it stopped trying so damned hard to be provocative and "adult" - seriously - but it's a pretty decent one even given its predilections towards the empty and the explicit. Spare, in its way. And absolutely harrowing. With the aforementioned caveats, then, I'd certainly recommend The Cross + The Hammer, as I did Sven the Returned before it.

Monday 20 February 2012

The Monday Miscellany | Alcatraz, Mass Effect: Invasion, War Horse

For a more formal introduction to The Monday Miscellany, feel free to click here.

Truth be told, there's not really so much to tell. The Monday Miscellany is basically a space for you and me and we to talk about things that I either can't summon a thousand words' worth of stuff and nonsense to say about, or are so very far outside the purview of a blog at least ostensibly about speculative fiction that I'd have a right cheek trying to pass said off as such on anything more than an occasional basis. 

What more do you need to know?

Let's get this show on the road!


With Lost fast receding in my mind's eye, and Fringe essentially on death's door - more's the pity - it feels a lot like the heyday of J. J. Abrams-produced projects on television is over. Or almost is. I mean, who even remembers Undercovers? How about Person of Interest?

Actually, that's terribly disingenuous of me: the only reason I don't remember Person of Interest is because I haven't the time to see a single episode yet... how has it been?

I'm certainly keen to sit down with a fat batch of Person of Interest episodes whenever the opportunity to do so next presents itself, but for some reason, Abrams' other new series this season grabbed me immediately.

What does that say about me, I wonder?

In any event, four episodes in, I've found Alcatraz to be a fun but deeply uneven experience. The premise is only so-so, the impressive cast has been incredibly disappointing to date, and there's no question that the uneasy balance it attempts to strike between its serial and its procedural elements is working against the series on every level; in the attempt to serve both masters, and both audiences, Alcatraz could very well end up disappointing everybody. It will if it keeps on like this.

But for now, I'm staying optimistic. Abrams' brainbabies often take a little while to find their feet - Fringe was no different, and these days it's one of the shows I most look forward to watching - so though Alcatraz could certainly have started out stronger, the thing to remember here is potential. And Alcatraz has potential written all over it.

I have my reservations, then - the escapee-of-the-week formula needs attention stat! - but I'm pleased to hear that enough viewers are tuning in week in and week out to keep Alcatraz on the air for the time being. Fingers firmly crossed the showrunners can work out the weak links in their cast and writing staff before folks on our side of the divide lose interest.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to get myself good and excited for Mass Effect 3 - because we're only weeks out from it now, and I feel nothing so much as nervous - I read all four issues of Mass Effect: Invasion, the latest miniseries out of Dark Horse.

Now I'm not entirely averse to them, but I don't make a habit of buying into tie-ins. What sold me on this series, as opposed to all the others I ignore, was, as ever, the talent involved in its gestation and creation. For those of you who don't know, Mac Walters is the lead writer of the games proper, and with his name right there on the front cover of all four issues, well... I couldn't not give Mass Effect: Invasion a shot.

Alas: lies. Fibs. Willful subliminal salesmanship.

Mass Effect: Invasion is not, as it transpires, written by Mac Walters at all. Some other guy scripted it based on an idea of his - about an all-out attack on the space station Aria T'Loak runs out by the mysterious Omega 4 Relay, masterminded by none other than The Illusive Man - and this other guy (Knights of the Old Republic writer John Jackson Miller) just doesn't do the universe justice. His prose is awkward and verbose, and there's some truly dreadful dialogue.

Tell you what, though: Mass Effect: Invasion looks pretty pretty, if quite conventional, thanks to Omar Francia -- another Star Wars import. So there's that. Sadly decent art can't save a poor story, so even if you're in the same position as I found myself - looking to get psyched about Mass Effect 3 - I'd advise you to steer clear of this silliness, lest you come out as bereft of enthusiasm for the actual game as I.

Last but not least for this inaugural edition of the Monday Miscellany, I thought - what with Oscar fever gripping the globe... or not - that now would be the time to catch up on a couple of Best Picture candidates. So last week I sat down with Steven Spielberg's latest family-friendly affair.

War Horse is based on the early 80s classic of the same name, of course, about the life and times of Joey, a thoroughbred through and through. I've never read the Michael Morpugo, however, so I can't speak to the quality of this movie as an adaptation, but as a film in its own right, it's beautiful but unbelievably bloated, and unfortunately, in terms of pacing and moreover passion, it's as flat as the day's last pancake.

Perhaps I'd have looked more kindly on War Horse were it not for John Williams' obvious and utterly uninspired score - which I would add lifts liberally from Star Trek, of all things - and the casting of some of the younger actors, in particular Celine Buckens as Emilie, with her dreadful parody of a French accent et al. Perhaps... but probably not. 

It's a shame, because the talent's certainly there, on camera and off. War Horse could have been Black Beauty for a new generation, but I'm afraid it's a far cry, and why the Academy have nominated it for Best Picture over the likes of Drive and the finest of all the Harry Potter films would be a mystery if we didn't already know the Academy was and will always be an assortment of snobs.

In all fairness I wouldn't take back the nearly three hours it took to see War Horse through, but I wouldn't want to suffer through them again either. It's not a terrible film, this... I'd even say it's worth a watch if you want to run your heart through the ringer a bit - to keep it on its toes, you know - but when that's the nicest thing you can think to say about one of the nine Best Picture nominees, something fishy is afoot.

So Alcatraz: yay. Mass Effect Invasion: nay. And as to War Horse? Well, you may. But don't expect anything special.

The Monday Miscellany | An Introduction

I post a whole lot of reviews here on The Speculative Scotsman. Not as many as some sites, perhaps, and as one man I'd have a hell of a time trying to compete with the blog conglomerates - the io9s and the Fantasy Factions and so on and so forth - but if you average it out, I write two or three reviews each week, and that isn't including the articles of mine which appear elsewhere.

You'd think that'd be plenty. You'd think I'd have a hard enough time getting all of the above together and sitting pretty enough that I'm comfortable showing them, and sharing them, and some weeks I do - at the best of times I'm sort of a slow writer - but equally, don't for a minute think that I blog about absolutely everything I read, or see, or play, or whatever: I most certainly do not.

That's been a source of some small frustration to me, not only of late, but all through the years I've been doing this thing. As discussed a little while ago, I have real trouble turning off the critical instinct. For better or for worse - more often for worse, in my experience - I find myself standing in judgement of almost everything I consume. In the privacy of my own home, say, I've slated the nightly news.

But breathe easy: I probably won't be writing about the Beeb in the Monday Miscellany. Never say never, but you know... it's not likely.

Anyway, as it stands, I just don't have a suitable space on the site to offer up my thoughts on things that I either can't summon a thousand words' worth of stuff and nonsense to say about, or are so very far outside the purview of a blog at least ostensibly about speculative fiction that I'd have a right cheek trying to pass said off as such on anything more than an occasional basis.

Well. With the advent of the Monday Miscellany, that sorry state of affairs ends today. Right here, and right now.

As with most of the most interesting things in life, the Monday Miscellany is founded on a fib, because it won't be a weekly thing. There won't necessarily be a Monday Miscellany every Monday, or even on most of the Mondays, of which - fun fact! - there are approximately 52 each year. But from this moment on, some Mondays will be more equal than other Mondays, and on those Mondays, I'll be able to burble about the stuff I wouldn't otherwise cover at all.

The Monday Miscellany, then, whenever there is one, will consist of several short reviews, nominally stitched together whenever possibly, but that's not the point, and I won't be losing any sleep over shoddy segues. The miscellaneous criticism therein won't be comprehensive, and it won't attempt to be; if I have enough to say about any one thing, I'll say it in a traditional review instead. But if I don't, or I don't think the thing I'm writing about is apt to appeal to terribly many of you, then I'll have this special space in which to talk about it.

That said, I solemnly swear to at least try to keep it (reasonably) relevant.

I expect the shorter format might lead to some interesting developments. To begin with, with less space - I intend for reviews featured in the Monday Miscellany to top out around 300 words - there'll be substantially less filler, which yes, I know I've been guilty of before, and as like as not it's an offense I'll be guilty of again, if a little less often from here on out. So there's that.

There's also the thought that, with this new space to fill, I'll be able to blog about some less standard fare. I don't mean malts either. I mean short stories and short story collections. I mean more small press novels... even the odd self-published affair, if it's worth it. I mean one-shot comics and albums I think you might be interested in reading about. I mean Flash games and downloadable content. I mean episodes or arcs of certain television shows; maybe short films and indie movies too.

Really, the remit includes pretty much everything I can think of at the moment, and whatever else occurs to me from this point on.

It's actually quite exciting, to finally start in on this thing. The idea's been rattling around in my head for months - alongside a few others you'll be hearing about shortly - and now that I'm ready to let it loose, I feel... hell, I feel relieved.

Obviously, I have high hopes for the Monday Miscellany. I'm not going to ask you to join me in song over its inception just yet, but I believe a good few of you will like it too. Fingers crossed, as ever!

Before I go, the better to let this new feature speak for itself, do stay tuned to TSS today, because the first proper installment of the Monday Miscellany will be along shortly. Among the stuff discussed: an Oscar candidate that left me wondering what in the world the Academy are up to... the new JJ Abrams show, which I've quite enjoyed, despite hiccups here, there and everywhere... and last, and indeed least, a comic book released to set the scene for Mass Effect 3, which if anything dampened my enthusiasm for a game I was expecting to be one of the best released in 2012.

All that, and more - actually, about that... - at two o'clock today, on the damn dot.

Come along for the ride, won't you?

Friday 17 February 2012

Book Review | The Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde

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A long time ago magic faded away, leaving behind only yo-yos, the extremely useful compass-pointing-to-North enchantment and the spell that keep bicycles from falling over.

Things are about to change. Big Magic is on the rise, and King Snodd IV of Hereford has realised that he who controls magic controls almost anything.

One person stands between Snodd and his plans for power and riches beyond the wildest dreams of avarice: meet Jennifer Strange, sixteen-year-old acting manager of Kazam, the employment agency for sorcerers and soothsayers. With only one functioning wizard and her faithful assistant 'Tiger' Prawns, Jennifer must use every ounce of ingenuity to derail King Snodd's plans. It may involve a trip on a magic carpet at the speed of sound to the Troll Wall, the mysterious Transient Moose, and a powerless sorceress named Once Magnificent Boo.

But one thing is certain: Jennifer Strange will not relinquish the noble powers of magic to big business and commerce without a fight.


To date, the closest Jasper Fforde has ever gotten to disappointing me was with the tease on the last page of Shades of Grey, wherein he promised not one but two sequels in the series, then roundly announced the first of them for 2013.


Even now, a year and a half on from Shades of Grey's publication, the wait for Painting By Numbers seems impossibly long. But in the interim, behold: this whole other series.

And it's not to be sniffed at. The Last Dragonslayer was a terrific bit of whimsy, all droll dragons and indentured orphans, yet in the same moment it was more than that. It was an accusatory index finger leveled in the general direction of genre fiction as we understand it; an introduction to fun in fantasy; and an argument, memorably made, that self-seriousness is not necessarily a necessity when it comes to swords and sorcery.

Needless to say The Last Dragonslayer also left the door wide open for more stories set against the brilliantly bureaucratic backdrop of Kazam, which is to say one of only two surviving magic-for-hire outfits still operating in the Ununited Kingdoms. Currently managed by the accidental last dragonslayer herself, Jennifer Strange - late of the Sisterhood of the Blessed Lady of the Lobster and still only sixteen years young - Kazam has fallen on hard times... has the entire magical community, actually. Or rather the remnants thereof, So when the corrupt King of Hereford, the fourth in a long line of approximately four Snodds, contrives a contest between Kazam and its only serious competitor, Industrial Magic - recently re-branded as iMagic, of course - it's a real winner takes all affair, because the loser will lose everything, up to and including limbs, and possibly lives.

To make matters worse, circumstances - or perhaps something more substantial - seem set on roundly wrongfooting Jennifer and the murder of retired magicians she looks out for. When Kazam's most powerful licensed magician turns to stone whilst performing a bit of routine wizardry, it's only the first in a series of unfortunate events to befall Jennifer and her friends, and at the worst possible moment, such that one begins to wonder: could someone, or something, be out to get them?

Why yes!

Hilarity abounds again in The Song of the Quarkbeast, if not in quite such quantity as it did in The Last Dragonslayer, then not far off its high magical mark. Bouncing around as it does from one scene to the next with the reader's attention in tow, albeit "in an affectionate, non-malicious, hardly-hurting-you-at-all sort of way," it hops and skips with seemingly little rhyme or reason; that is unless we're looking at set-up for The Return of Shandar, and I think perhaps we are. Thus, this second novel in the series has a decidedly episodic quality, but not to the extent that it's an insurmountable issue, and indeed, in the endgame, thing comes together marvelously.

Fforde has such a light touch that he makes this sort of thing look easy, when it's assuredly not, and even at its most distracted, The Song of the Quarkbeast is hugely entertaining. Warm but wan, British, and yet brilliant, it is what you might describe as a "sarcoluminescent" novel: so funny that it emits a noticeable glow... particularly in the ebook edition, which is rife with exclusive footnotes, including one which delves deeper into the subject of sarcoluminescence. There is a priceless revelation lifted wholesale from Star Wars, and such gems as "for every evil genius there must be a ludicrously beautiful woman apparently doing very little at his side," which had me in such spasms that I had to stop reading for a moment.

Like The Last Dragonslayer, Shades of Grey and the Thursday Next novels, this book is certainly representative of an acquired taste, and as Fforde asserts in another footnote - on the arguable excellence of camel's ears as a snack - "an acquired taste" is usually shorthand for something "extremely nasty."

But no. Not in this case. Particularly considering that it's the middle volume in what purports to be a trilogy, The Song of the Quarkbeast is surprisingly delicious in and of itself. It is to be consumed in a single sitting, very much in the mode of a Quarkbeast, who'll devour a tin of dog food - can and all - in moments, and immediately ask for another.


The Song of the Quarkbeast
by Jasper Fforde

UK Publication: November 2011, Hodder & Stoughton

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Recommended and Related Reading

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Video Game Review | Q.U.B.E., dev. Toxic Games

When a first-person shooter comes out which superimposes neat new mechanics on the tried and true formula of the genre, nobody screams about how it's some Call of Duty knock-off. Or perhaps some do - idiots, to a one - but assuredly they shouldn't, because however much Infinity Ward's take has come to dominate the space, there were excellent first-person shooters before Call of Duty, and in time, there'll be FPS-based games which put Call of Duty to shame. Bioshock Infinite, for instance. Give it to me!

But there have been far fewer first-person puzzle games than shooters from said perspective. In fact - and please do correct me if I'm wrong here - the only one I can recall is Portal, so it's hardly surprising that every review I've read of Q.U.B.E. has made reference to Valve's masterpiece of spatial awareness. It's hardly surprising, particularly given that the pair share an identical clinical aesthetic, and take similar turns around the halfway mark... but that isn't to say it's fair. Indeed, I'd describe the tepid reception Q.U.B.E. has received as indecent.

Q.U.B.E.'s name is a reference to the gameplay principle it revolves around, which is to say the Quick Understanding of Block Extrusion. At the outset the player wakes in a simple white-tiled test chamber without a word of explanation as to how you got there, or when or why, or even where there is. The only thing you can do is move forward, into another room, where there's a ledge you can't quite reach, and a single coloured block set into the floor, blood-red against the pure, bright white. You click it... and it rises. You click it again and it lowers back into the floor. Understanding dawns when you surmount the platform and raise it up to gain access to the ledge you couldn't get to before.

In the next chamber there's a red block and a blue block. In the chamber after that there's a set of yellow blocks as well. You discern that each colour does a distinct thing, and the first few of Q.U.B.E.'s seven sectors are devoted to exploring the many and various ways you can interact with these coloured blocks, and they with one another.

Concepts fall into place quickly and moreover naturally in the first half of Toxic Games' debut. The Welsh startup studio may well have borrowed an idea here and adapted an art asset there, but they put all of Q.U.B.E.'s component parts together in an inspired order that is entirely their own. The thrill of discovering the riddle of each subsequent room is second to none. Well... it's second to one, but if there's a more soaring series to play second fiddle to than Portal, I don't know its name.

Sadly Q.U.B.E. seems to run out of ideas well before the game is over. There's been no narrative to speak of thus far, and certainly no character, but suddenly the luridly lit rooms are plunged into darkness, and then the walls begin to crumble around you; sparking wires hang loose, the mechanics of platforms are rudely exposed, and spherical security drones start factoring into puzzles that seem at best abstract. Q.U.B.E. becomes an uncomfortably familiar experience, and by the time it finds itself again, shortly before the credits roll, hours have passed, and the game has changed, for poorer rather than richer: the difficulty curve has risen sharply, only to drop arbitrarily away into jagged cracks and chasms of its own creation. In short, Q.U.B.E. has become something of a slog. 

But wait, there's more! I wouldn't usually comment on bugs in a video game review, no more than I would allude to typos or formatting problems in a review of a book, alas... there's no getting away from the fact that Q.U.B.E. is a bit broken. I lost count of the number of times I had to restart a room because I'd gotten stuck on some unexpected geometry, but these clipping issues were hardly an issue amongst all the blue screens I encountered -- and this on a computer that hasn't crashed since I fed it Windows 7.

Presumably there'll be patches - if there aren't already - to address these issues, and DLC tailored to expand upon the best moments of Toxic Games' flawed but nonetheless impressive debut. I'll look forward to both of those things, but with several reservations.

Ultimately, it's fine to find fault with Q.U.B.E. - after all it is far from a perfect game, nor by any means a stable one at the time of this writing - but to dismiss it because it bears a momentary aesthetic resemblance to Portal is wrong-headed. And despite all its issues, I'd still urge you to give Q.U.B.E. a go, the better to see what else it has to offer for yourself.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

The Best Things In Life | From, With Love

Valentine's day, eh?

It's an especially happy day for couples, of course, but equally, Valentine's day must be a depressing occasion for many, many others - for all those folks who don't have some kindred spirit to share it with, for instance... and all so chocolatiers and florists can stay in business through the lastmost moments of winter! The greedy gits.

But never mind me: look to In honour of the occasion, they've put together a short anthology - namely the 2011 edition of Some of the Best From - and released it, for free, to e-book readers around the world.

Actually, that's a lie. Sure, if you're in the United States, you can have it - for now - for nothing, but if (like me) you're based in Europe or the UK, or anywhere outside of America, I expect, you're plum out of luck, pal.

International rights issues like this have been a source of some small frustration to me recently. Most notably I'm still desperate to read The Butcher of Anderson Station by James S. A. Corey, one of Orbit's so-called Hot Shorts... though at this point I've pretty much given up hope of ever seeing it released here.

But maybe Orbit will surprise the pants off of me and slap it in the back of the next novel in the Expanse series as a deleted scene or some such. That'd be brilliant. Then again Caliban's War, due in June, is very probably going to be brilliant in and of itself, so I won't be complaining if they hold off.


Some of the Best From features short stories, novelettes and a novella by Harry Turtledove, Nnedi Okorafor, Charlie Jane Anders off of io9 and Michael Swanwick, whose work I've only recently come to appreciate -- on which note: stay tuned for a full review of The Iron Dragon's Daughter shortly. As well as all that, there are contributions from an assortment of other authors I'm unfamiliar with, as yet... but that's half the fun of reading through an anthology, isn't it? The experience. The education. The occasional delightful discovery!

If I could slap this thing onto my Kindle - well, onto the Kindle app I have on my tablet - I'd do it in a Valentine's heartbeat. Failing that, all of the stories in Some of the Best From are of course still archived on the site, and the folks in charge have assembled a page with direct links to each and every one of the above. So poor souls like me aren't completely in the dark on this happy/sad day.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Americans amongst you can grab a free copy of Some of the Best From from Amazon via this link. The anthology should also be available wherever you usually order your e-books.

Go on now... have a free collection of speculative short fiction!

And do enjoy your Valentine's day, if you can. :)

Monday 13 February 2012

The Scotsman Abroad | Telling The Troupe

As above, so below... my review of The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett - which we chatted about on The Speculative Scotsman here - is live as we speak on the almighty Here's a snippet from it:

"Riding the crest of a weird wave of speculative and indeed superlative circus stories – with The Night Circus, Cyber-Circus and Genevieve Valentine’s marvellous Mechanique bringing up the esteemed rear – The Troupe is a tall and ineffably tender tale about nothing less than 'the warp and weft of the web' of the world."

"It concerns an elusive company of vaudeville players with a mythical mission, ultimately as hellish as it is holy, and a newcomer in their midst: George by name, and George by nature, because next to the motley lot he falls in with, George seems intolerably ordinary. A teenage vaudeville virgin from a broken home, George has spent the past several months playing pitch-perfect piano for a pittance at Otterman’s, in the unlikely event that the mysterious Silenus Troupe he has become obsessed by break with tradition, and stop off at his tawdry theater a second time. If and when that happens, George hopes for an introduction, but in truth his dreams are of an invitation: to tour the world with them, and finally befriend his father... because he is none other than Heironomo Silenus’ son."

Keep reading and you'll realise that I had a few problems with The Troupe - foremostly a main character with no agency for approximately half of the whole - but I still came away from the thing feeling optimistic, and the end is quite simply incredible; a destination well worth the journey's bumpier bits.

And in fairness I seem to be the only reviewer with any reservations about it. Robert has been counting down the reviews as and when they've come in on his blog, and together they make for a very impressive presentation.

In short: if Mr. Shivers did it for you, The Troupe should too. It's different, but similar in its interest in the mythic, and three books in (because I finally read The Company Man in readiness for this review) I've found that Robert Jackson Bennett is never better than when he's myth-making. 

And when he's on... oh lord!