Friday 30 November 2012

News Flashing | Under the Dome Goes Straight to Series

HBO's Game of Thrones may still be going strong, but with Fringe finishing in the not-too-distant, and my favourite new series from this season - namely Last Resort - dead in the water already, I've been wondering what the year 2013 holds for me in terms of TV.

Well, now I've an inkling. TV Guide is reporting that CBS have made a straight-to-season order of 13 episodes of Under the Dome: a series based on Stephen King's gargantuan 2009 novel of the same name, adapted by Brian K. Vaughan of Lost and Y The Last Man fame, and directed by Niels Arden Oplev, who helmed the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Under the Dome is set to hit home theatres sometime this coming Summer, and Simon & Schuster's re-release of the original book in April in the US seems telling; I'd expect to see it on this side of that window. 

Here's a smart-arsed synopsis of the show by TV Guide's Sadie Gennis, now with proper apostrophes:
"The serialized drama, which will be produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, tells the story of a small New England town that becomes sealed off from the world by an over-sized transparent dome — much like in The Simpsons Movie. But instead of running around with Spider Pig, the town's inhabitants are faced with dire and deadly circumstances due to the dome's arrival. Under the Dome will follow the citizens' survival as they try to learn more about the dome and how to get rid of it."
It's unknown as yet, however, whether Under the Dome will be a limited or a continuing series. I'd like to see CBS go limited with it - the premise might be able to sustain itself indefinitely, but the same can't be said about its characters - but no doubt if its first season does decently, Under the Dome will be back for another run in summer 2014 too.

Now that it's actually happening, officially and all, I'm cautiously optimistic about this adaptation. The talent certainly promises a lot. And though I didn't love the book, if the truth be told, as ever with the work of Stephen King, most of its missteps only became evident come the cruddy conclusion... so if Under the Dome goes and goes, that disappointment's a long, long way off, plus the showrunners will have to make such changes to the tale for television that perhaps the end will be better for the stretching of the rest.

It's not likely to be worse, is it?

So, will you all be watching? Or does Under the Dome still have its work cut out convincing you?

Thursday 29 November 2012

On Blogging | Graeme's Fantasy Book Review, I Salute You!

Blogs come and blogs go. The longer you do this thing, the clearer that sad fact appears. But the great and the good live on in our hearts and our minds, even after they're long gone. I often find myself thinking fondly of Floor-to-Ceiling Books, for instance, amongst myriad others.

But of all the blogs I've followed, and of all the friends I've made since becoming a part of this literary lark, good sir Graeme Flory and his absolutely fabulous Fantasy Book Review may have impressed the most lasting mark upon me — and The Speculative Scotsman as well. Never mind for the moment how prolific Graeme was as a blogger, how funny and insightful and kind in his writing and in real life: he taught zombies and honesty, and he taught them better than anyone else. 

So it's with sorrow in my otherwise impenetrable Scotch soul that I must inform you of the end of an era. Graeme's Fantasy Book Review closed its doors early yesterday... and I suddenly felt frightfully lonely.

Here's Graeme's explanation:
It's been a little while coming but it's time to bring this blog to a close. Obviously there are a whole load of reasons (none of them particularly interesting to you guys) but the bottom line is that I'm not really enjoying it anymore and that means that it's time to stop. That's not to say that I won't come back, in the future, and start something up again; just not here. I've got some ideas but I just want to stop and chill out for a while.
It's been a amazing experience but you have to know when it's time to stop. It's time to stop :o)
In the final comments section, there's already been an outpouring of support for one of the very best bloggers there ever was, or ever will be. but if you haven't yet added your two cents to the discussion, I urge you: please do.

Luckily, we only have to say goodbye to a blog. Though I seem to have written an obituary - what can I say? I'm sad - Graeme himself is still well and truly with us, and I'd bet my last penny that we'll be hearing from him again... perhaps in some other capacity... and fingers firmly crossed, sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, you can harass the man on Twitter @graemesfantasyb.

In fact, could someone perhaps ask him who in holy hell will review all the zombie novels ever now?

Not it! :P

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Book Review | Katya's World by Jonathan L. Howard

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The distant and unloved colony world of Russalka has no land, only the raging sea. No clear skies, only the endless storm clouds. Beneath the waves, the people live in pressurised environments and take what they need from the boundless ocean. It is a hard life, but it is theirs — and they fought a war against Earth to protect it. But wars leave wounds that never quite heal, and secrets that never quite lie silent...

Katya Kuriakova doesn't care much about ancient history like that, though. She is making her first submarine voyage as crew; the first nice, simple journey of what she expects to be a nice, simple career. There is nothing nice and simple about the deep black waters of Russalka, however. Soon she will encounter pirates and war criminals, see death and tragedy at first hand, and realise that her world's future lies on the narrowest of knife edges. For in the crushing depths lies a sleeping monster, an abomination of unknown origin, and when it wakes, it will seek out and kill every single person on the planet.


Having cut his comedic teeth writing the Broken Sword series of point and click puzzle games, and honed them to a sharp point through three novels starring Johannes Cabal, the renowned necromancer and detective, Jonathan L. Howard continues his mission to maintain a presence on bookstore shelves with the first volume of The Russalka Chronicles, and I bet it'll be his greatest success yet.

Katya's world is dystopian, of course. "But for its polar ice caps, there was not even a square meter of dry land on the whole planet," (p.7) yet when a probe finds a veritable treasure trove of rare minerals in the oceans of RIC-23, folks from all across Russia are brought in to colonise it in any case. They name their harsh new home after "a race of mermaids, beautiful and mysterious. If they had looked deeper into the [originating] myth, they might have changed their minds — a Russalka was a predator that would use her charms to draw men down to the water, where they would be drowned and fed upon." (p.8)

An ill omen, no? On an underwater world, to make matters worse! But for a time, despite the odds stacked against them, the Russalkans thrive. That is until Earth attacks: a century after abandoning the colony entirely, an army arrives out of the blue, demanding the people's fealty. When they dare to disagree, the Terrans promptly wage war. In a matter of minutes, they devastate all they can of the planet, but finding themselves ill-equipped for prolonged underwater assault, Earth's forces eventually retreat... broken, if not nearly beaten.

From here, the Russalkans live in perpetual fear — and into this climate comes our heroine Katya Kuriakova, an aspiring navigator with admittedly little interest in her homeworld's history. For better or worse, that will change when - in the middle of her first official mission - she becomes involved with public enemy number one, Havilland Kane:
"He was a ruthless pirate, a murderer who had saved her life. He was probably a Terran, a Grubber, one of the filth who had killed her father and thousands more, yet he had also saved the Novgorod and everybody aboard her. Katya didn't know what to think. She couldn't bring herself to hate him, but she certainly couldn't like him either. That only left her the option of indifference, and Kane was a hard man to be indifferent about." (p.88)
Like many books of its particular ilk, Katya's World lives and dies on the basis of the relationship between Kane and our plucky young orphan. But wait till you hear this: they don't even kiss! Howard simply isn't about such an easy out. Instead, Katya and her chance companion are at one another's throats throughout, smartly arguing ideologies and debating what they should do with the leftover megaweapon they find on the ocean floor. Yet when a still greater threat arises - from within as opposed to outwith their world - they demonstrate themselves adult enough to put aside their differences.

Call me an easy mark, but I fell for Katya and Kane incredibly quickly. The latter is an immediately engaging antagonist, with secrets, clearly, and though Howard's characterisation of Katya is at times a touch discordant - one moment she's brave and pragmatic, the next she's "just a stupid little girl [with] no idea what she was doing" (p.149) - overall I came to care a great deal about her, especially in light of all that she's lost... not to mention all she loses over the course of this surprisingly merciless coming of age tale.

Half the fun of Katya's World, however, is in one's discovery of it; of its aquatic marvels and unearthly terrors equally. To wit, I wish the author had parceled out the heavy wedge of information he dumps whole-hog in the prologue. Other than this, Howard equips himself tremendously well, such that the first volume of The Russalkan Chronicles towers above most contemporary attempts to invoke dystopia.

The climax, finally, is fantastic. It may boil down to "one long round of jumping out of frying pans into successively larger fires," (p.324) yet the last act's successive set-pieces unfold so spectacularly that they're a joy to behold, albeit in one's imagination. Even then, Howard's prose is so pure that at this stage I don't even need to see the movie — and if Hollywood doesn't come a-calling shortly, filmmakers are missing a trick.

But you know what? For this, I'd line up on opening night anyway.

Romance aficionados need not apply, but all other fans of fun are likely to find lots to love about Jonathan L. Howard's new novel. Imagine The Hunt for Red October meets Retribution Falls. Rich in the character department and packed full of underwater wonders from prow to stern, Katya's World is exactly as enjoyable as all that. When the chance to return to this marvellous maritime planet arises, consider this critic suited and booted!


This review was originally published, in a slightly altered form, on


Katya's World
by Jonathan L. Howard

UK & US Publication: November 2012, Strange Chemistry

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Monday 26 November 2012

I Tube | An Act of Faith: Alan Moore and I

It's been some time since Alan Moore really, truly moved me.

Don't misunderstand me: I admire the man in many senses. He has a pretty brilliant beard, and his work ain't too shabby either. But when in readiness for the three Century singles I went back to the beginning of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I got no further than The Black Dossier, which so bored me that I started skipping entire sections.

I can hardly express how utterly unlike me that is. For better or for worse, when I read something, I read it deliberately. I do not gloss; I don't know how to. But The Black Dossier's endless academic digressions drove me to distraction, so when I finally finished it, I was in no hurry to move on to the next volume. I haven't touched a single Century since, and it's been at least a year.

But now, between Moore's bravura introduction to The Vorrh - which I recently reviewed for Tor - and Antony Johnston's excellent adaptation of his screenplay Fashion Beast for Avatar Press, I find myself game for a touch more Moore. A quick Wiki says his next thing is The Moon and the Serpent Bumper Book of Magic, which sounds pretty terrific, but between now and whenever that graphic novel surfaces, he's written a short film.

Jimmy's End itself isn't out yet, but Act of Faith is. Intended to act as a curtain-raiser to the main event, in the great tradition Pixar brought back, it "unveils an isolated corner of the modern night, where carrion crows become the only comforters and it's a quarter to eternity."

I should stress that this description, lifted from the official site, is pure silliness. Instead, Act of Faith is a twisted 15 minute film about sex and suicide, starring a single actress and set in a single small space.

I'm going to say it's not safe for work. But if that's where you are at the moment, I'd urge you to save the link for later.

Otherwise, have at it immediately, please:

Well, what did you think?

Admittedly, the thing begins rather badly, but beyond the dodgy voice actor playing Faith's father, and the off-kilter camera angles, and the point about belief the short rather rams home, I enjoyed Act of Faith awfully.

Moore's script goes exactly where you expect it to, yet still it surprises; as the central character, Siobhan Hewlett is singularly riveting; overall, the atmosphere is fantastic, in no small part thanks to the soundtrack; and ultimately Mitch Jenkins' direction achieves the very voyeuristic feeling one imagines Moore was working towards. After a few minutes I simply submitted to this film, and Act of Faith's fuck you of a finale paid back my investment with interest.

I had mixed feelings about Alan Moore before this cunning curtain-raiser, but now I'm unbelievably keen to see Jimmy's End myself. I'll aim to alert you all as and when its creators make it available.

In the interim, it'd be great to hear from any other Alan Moore admirers out there. In fact, in my extended absence from the comic book form, I missed a great swathe of his work - other than Fashion Beast and a little of The League, I haven't read anything of his since the halcyon days of America's Best Comics - so I'd be interested to hear what, if anything, I'm missing.

Friday 23 November 2012

Film Review | ParaNorman

From afar, Laika Entertainment's first feature film since Coraline in 2009 looks questionable at best.

But come a little closer. Look again. How about now?

Coraline was of course adapted from the charming Neil Gaiman novel of the same name, whilst ParaNorman springs from an original script by a first-time filmmaker. Likewise, Coraline was directed by stop-motion maestro Henry Selick, whereas Laika's latest has its own unknown author at the helm, chaperoned by Sam Fell of Flushed Away fame. One can't help but wonder where all the talent went, and why.

ParaNorman's premise is similarly discouraging: there's this little outcast kid called Norman - voiced by The Road's Kodi Smit-McPhee - and he can see dead people. That old chestnut again, then.

And isn't the title terrible? On the other hand, inappropriate capital letters are a real pet peeve, so maybe that's just me.

But never mind the title, and rest assured that the premise improves. Finally, forget the apparent lack of talent, because ParaNorman wants for nothing once it gets going. Admittedly it takes a little too long to get to the good stuff - the story goes, though very slowly - but beyond this belated beginning the pace improves, the narrative arc becomes darker, indeed deeper, and once the ante is upped, the cartoonish characters come into their own.

It's hard to express how different this film is before and after the half-hour mark... suffice to to say some shock of creative energy seems to possess ParaNorman at this point. Make it that far and you'll be blown away by the array of fantastic surprises the filmmakers have been holding back.

ParaNorman deals in a very real way with bigotry, religion, peer pressure and yes, death; astounding and encouraging in what is ostensibly a children's film. The film tackles such topics lightly but not loosely, investing the proceedings with meaning enough to last past the end credits. More movies like ParaNorman, and perhaps there's hope for the next generation yet!

In terms of entertainment, writer/director Chris Butler - alongside Sam Fell - equips himself incredibly well. Its iffy offing aside, ParaNorman builds and builds towards a remarkable finale, and all the while it's bloody lovely to look at, and beautiful musically, too. 

Overall, ParaNorman is a less consistent film than Coraline, but at its best? I'm as surprised as anyone to find myself saying that it's actually rather better.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Book Review | Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

Shy South comes home to her farm to find a blackened shell, her brother and sister stolen, and knows she’ll have to go back to bad old ways if she’s ever to see them again. She sets off in pursuit with only her cowardly old step-father Lamb for company. But it turns out he’s hiding a bloody past of his own. None bloodier.

Their journey will take them across the lawless plains, to a frontier town gripped by gold fever, through feuds, duels, and massacres, high into unmapped mountains to a reckoning with ancient enemies, and force them into alliance with Nicomo Cosca, infamous soldier of fortune, a man no one should ever have to trust...


A river of blood runs through Red Country: a scarlet stream that slices like a scythe through the old West-esque wilderness of Joe Abercrombie's new novel. It begins an arterial stream on a smallholding outside Squaredeal; turns a tributary after the evils of Crease; and by the end it's become a terrible torrent, as unstoppable as anger, as awful as war. Pity the poor fool who stands in its path.

Red Country is vile at times, and plain ugly most all others, but mark my words: from source to termination, you won't be able to look away... because by the dead, this book is brilliant, certain to satisfy longstanding fans as well as welcome - warmly, I warrant - new readers from near and from far.

For those folks, and any old-timers who require a refresher, a tiny primer: the Bath-bound family man made his name less than a decade ago with the opening volume of The First Law. Before They Are Hanged demonstrated The Blade Itself's success had been no happy accident, and with Last Argument of Kings Abercrombie cemented his reputation as one of fantasy's finest.

Ever since the acclaimed author has been worrying away at the same wanton world that these three were set against by way of a series of self-contained tales. Following in the fearsome footsteps of Best Served Cold and The Heroes, Red Country is the third of these, and by all accounts the last such standalone for the foreseeable. Fitting, then, that it's the best of the bloody bunch.

It begins with a bargain. In Squaredeal, Shy South negotiates a nice price for several sacks of grain harvested from her family's farm. Doesn't hurt that she has a hulking Northman by her side during these dealings, but truth be told, it doesn't help hugely: though Lamb looks like trouble, he's named after his nature. This fella she has instead of a father is a career coward... or so Shy suspects.

She has cause to reconsider her opinion when they get back to the ranch and find naught but burned-out fields and a body swinging in the wind. Some band of bastards has destroyed all that's theirs — and to make matters worse, the children are missing. The pair don't spend forever plotting out a plan of action: they bury their dead quickly, then set out in search of poor Pit and Ro.

It takes time, but twisted bitter as Shy is, she's shocked six ways from Sunday by Lamb's eventual reaction:
"This big, gentle Northman who used to run laughing through the wheat with Pit on one shoulder and Ro on the other, used to sit out at sunset with Gully, passing a bottle between 'em in silence for hours at a time, who'd never once laid a hand on her growing up in spite of some sore provocations, talking about getting their hands red to the elbows like it was nothing." (p.51)
It's not nothing - not now, nor ever again - but in the end, what else is left? Thus they track a trail blazed by bandits into the Ghost-ridden plains and dangerous dales of the Far Country, where our determined duo encounter a caravan of fellow travelers led by the legendary adventurer Dab Sweet — though the man seems less of a legend in person. But Shy and Lamb figure there's more safety in numbers than in none, so they join forces for the moment, suffering the company of others on the road to Crease: a filthy frontier town (which takes its title from a mark on a map) where two opposing powers vie for control.

Meanwhile, returning drunk and indignant from his fall from grace in Best Served Cold, Nicomo Cosca leads an inquisition of miserable mercenaries out into the big empty — ostensibly to root out rebels, but one of the Old Man's many mistakes the mission for mass slaughter. Seeing that there's "no heroism apparent" (p.60) in the Company of the Gracious Hand, Temple - a jack of all trades type - resolves to escape Cosca's clutches quick as he can. In short order, he throws himself into the river, only to be fished out of it by... a familiar face.

After an encouraging start, then, but before gathering together for an awesome last act, Red Country's narrative rather meanders — and considering the stakes, this is an issue. With Pit and Ro's very lives on the line, that our heroes dawdle in the desert for a hundred-some pages - then in Crease for at least as long again - is some kind of strange; passing distracting if not entirely pace-breaking. To his credit, Abercrombie does contextualise the double-headed delay; even so, it's sure to sit with readers uneasily.

Given this, it's safe to say that Red Country is about the journey moreso than the inevitable destination. And with such dizzying highs and desperate lows, what a trip it is! The fellowship comes together and apart, goes from rocks to hard places via frying pans and fires. And in the quieter times - though these are few and far between - a collusion of character: of the angry, the greedy and the needy; the good, the bad and the Joe Abercrombie.

Not all of Red Country's perspectives are sympathetic - come to that, some are apt to turn even the steeliest stomachs - but each arc, in its way, proves as absorbing as the protracted pilgrimage the plot revolves around. Temple and Lamb are particularly fantastic in that regard: the loyalties of either character are ever uncertain, whilst in a telling inversion, one's deliberate development seems to mirror the other's.

Cosca, meanwhile, is a fascinating antagonist: brutal and unpredictable, but a damaged man, all booze and bluster. Through him - and the cowering writer he has hired to chronicle his last hurrah - Abercrombie digs down to the root of this book, which is what separates kings from cowards, and right from wrong — or does not:
"Sworbreck had come to see the face of heroism and instead he had seen evil. Seen it, spoken with it, been pressed up against it. Evil turned out not to be a grand thing. Not sneering Emperors with world-conquering designs. Not cackling demons plotting in the darkness beyond the world. It was small men with their small acts and their small reasons. It was selfishness and carelessness and waste. It was bad luck, incompetence and stupidity. It was violence divorced from conscience or consequence. It was high ideals, even, and low methods." (p.415)
This deflated depiction of the evils men wheedle grounds Red Country in a familiar mire of misery and cynicism, yet ever the canny craftsman, Abercrombie tempers the potential excesses of his text with characteristic warmth and wit. Indeed, paired as it is with an undeniably wicked yet quickly winning sense of humour, the cruel and unusual content of his new novel feels a fleeting thing after the fact, for there is barbed beauty to be discovered amongst the abject horror of it all, in moments of love and laughter; likewise in rare reflections on family and friendship.

Red Country rides a crimson tide, but I dare say the water here is clearer than it appears. Having mastered that balancing act at last, the work of Joe Abercrombie is as blackly fantastic as it's ever been, and markedly more approachable than before. It's a testament to how far the author has come since The First Law trilogy that this superlative standalone should satisfy any and all comers.

That's the now. And the stage is intriguingly set for whatever comes next. What that will be remains to be seen, but there'll be blood, I bet, and if Red Country is any indication, a truly incredible book to boot.


This review was originally published, in a slightly altered form, on


Red Country
by Joe Abercrombie

UK Publication: October 2012, Gollancz
US Publication: November 2012, Orbit

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Monday 19 November 2012

But I Digress | Star Wars Into Darkness

If I see one more article purporting to contain exclusive news about the latest director, actor or other talent NOT involved in Star Wars: Episode VII, I swear I'm going to swear off the internet.

Admittedly I've never been a huge Star Wars fan. For me, it was Star Trek all the way. And though a love for one of the above doesn't necessarily preclude some fondness for the other, I tend to think these things are set in stone when one's stone is still soft — which is to say when you're young.

As a kid, in an odd intermingling of idiocy and innocence, I imagined the people who made Pepsi and Coca-Cola hated one another, and thus, the people who drank one soft drink had nothing to do with the enemy beverage. The same went for Snickers and Mars bars, fast food from McDonalds versus Burger King, and Star Wars vis-a-vis Star Trek.

I was a Coca-Cola kid. I also enjoyed Snickers, McDonalds and Star Trek. I dutifully avoided the other in each of these fields, with sometimes fundamentalist fervour, such that even now I have mixed feelings about Mars bars. Seriously, why no nuts?

In any event, then came the realisation that Star Wars fandom was essentially inextricable from the friends I found myself making, so I gave the original trilogy a shot. I gave it a couple, at that. But each time, I came out of the experience as cold as I'd gone in. The films seemed cartoonish to me. Simplistic, and sometimes silly. 

This is particularly rich coming from a Trekkie, isn't it? Believe you me, I'm well aware!

But back to the matter at hand: feeling my years even at age 11, I concluded that I should have sat down with Star Wars sooner. Because by the time I did, it was too late. I was new to double digits, but still too old for A New Hope.

I felt this way because Star Trek had my heart. There was just no room at the inn for another love. And I dare say it's still fully booked.

So the news of three more Star Wars movies leaves me... unmoved. I don't doubt that this is huge for some of you. But do we really need to blog about the infinite number of directors that don't plan to direct Episode VII? Each and every actor that may or may not return to reprise their roles?


Tell you what, though. Star Trek Into Darkness looks fantastic. :D

I was going to see The Hobbit at the cinema this Christmas one way or the other, but the recent news that the IMAX print of it comes complete with nine minutes of the Star Trek sequel, has me reconsidering my mixed feelings about movies on those massive screens.

So where do you folks fall? Are you die-hard Star Wars fans, or Trekkies like yours truly? More to my meanderings, is there anyone out there who'll swear by both series?

Friday 16 November 2012

Book Review | The Ward by S. L. Grey

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Lisa is a plastic surgery addict with severe self-esteem issues. The only hospital that will let her go under the knife is New Hope: a grimy, grey-walled facility dubbed 'No Hope' by its patients.

Farrell is a celebrity photographer. His last memory is a fight with his fashion-model girlfriend and now he's in No Hope, alone. Needle marks criss-cross his arms. A sinister nurse keeps tampering with his drip. And he's woken up blind...

Panicked and disorientated, Farrell persuades Lisa to help him escape, but the hospital's dimly lit corridors only take them deeper underground - into a twisted mirror world staffed by dead-eyed nurses and doped-up orderlies. Down here, in the Modification Ward, Lisa can finally have the face she wants... but at a price that will haunt them both forever.


First impressions have a nasty habit of lasting forever, so it was well that The Mall made an immediate impact, harrowing off the bat and darkly hearty thereafter. But more than a year on, what's remained with me is its cutting criticism of consumerism; its self-aware skewering of today's culture of consumption.

The first collaboration between South African authors Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg under the open pseudonym S. L. Grey was a hair-raising horror novel in its own right, however: an unsettling study of two fractured characters trapped in a mega-mall as magnificently twisted as their own minds. It took us downside, to a world somehow under ours, where legions lived simply to shop, or serve, or else squash those individuals who refused to submit to management's demands.

Though the story of Dan and Rhoda is over - and how! - The Ward embiggens this nightmarish scenario brilliantly, introducing downside more quickly than before and giving readers a longer look at its larger infrastructure. We soon see how horribly organised the operation is - how committees meet to debate the merits of repurposing a person's parts, for instance - but this insight hardly detracts from the unknowableness that is amongst The Ward's most terrifying tools.

In the same way as the previous pair, two new characters trade chapters throughout The Ward. The first is "Farrell. Josh Farrell," (p.79) a spoiled fashion photographer who awakens in New Hope Hospital with no memory of his admission. It says as much as I should about Farrell that whilst he awakens blind, with a palimpsest of puncture marks criss-crossing his arms, what really worries him is his missing iPhone. After all, how can he keep his meeps up to speed without instantaneous access to MindRead?

We're on a first name basis with our other protagonist, Lisa Cassavetes. Hers is a more sympathetic perspective than Farrell's by far... though readers can't trust Lisa completely either. She's a plastic surgery addict with body dysmorphic disorder come to New Hope - known as No Hope by its long-term clientele - seeking treatment no other hospital will agree to. But the speed with which the doctors here clear her prayed-for procedure leaves even Lisa feeling uneasy, then when she tries to leave she sees something she can't believe:
"I run out into the corridor. It appears to be as deserted as before, but then I catch a glimpse of movement. A bulky, malformed shape is shuffling towards the far end. There's something... wrong about the way it's moving, as if the proportions of its body are skewed. It's too far away for me to figure out if it's because its legs are too short, its arms too long or the head too big. It pauses, turns around as if it can feel me staring at it — and then it's gone." (pp.39-40)
Lisa and Farrell's narratives come together more immediately than Dan and Rhoda's did, and there are other differences between The Mall and this new novel, but out of the gate, I fear The Ward feels like a retread of familiar (and thus less terrifying) territory — an impression which persists until we descend into a very different downside. Gone are The Mall's shoppers and blank-faced sales assistants; in their place, imagine anonymous nurses performing obscene procedures on misshapen patients.

There's no shortage of body horror in this book, nor of more meaningful fear. To grotesque effect, Grey often calls up the uncanny, including examples of disruption, doubling and dismemberment. But The Ward's most successful scares emerge from its pitch-perfect setting, which evokes an atmosphere that is never less than alarming:
"Listen to the quiet conversations of the nurses, the old women moaning in pain like mourners at a funeral, the building breathing, the stale air circulating, the tick of the drip machine. And underneath it all, a distant thrum, like the hospital is built over a massive beehive, or a full stadium buried hundreds of metres deep." (p.20)
Newcomers are apt to take a little less from The Ward's explanations and elaborations than returning readers, but this is an accessible novel nonetheless: short, sharp and shocking, with powerhouse pacing, great characterisation and an unforgettable setting that trades on real repugnance rather than The Mall's counter-capitalist satire. S. L. Grey's depiction of postmodern horror is practically peerless, so come one, come all to New Hope hospital. "If you aren't at death's door when you get here [...] you will be when you leave." (p.12)


This review was originally published, in a slightly altered form, on


The Ward
by S. L. Grey

UK Publication: October 2012, Corvus

Buy this book from / The Book Depository

Recommended and Related Reading

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Book Review | Mage's Blood by David Hair

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The Moontide is coming, and the world stands on the brink of war...

Every twelve years the tides sink to their absolute lowest and the Leviathan Bridge rises above the waves, linking the Eastern and Western continents for twenty-four short months.

The Rondian Emperor, the overlord of the West, is hell-bent on ruling both continents, and for the last two Moontides, his crusading armies have crossed the bridge and raped and pillaged their way across the Antiopia.

Now the next Moontide is almost here. As the battle-mages of the Third Crusade gather in the West, holy shihad is declared in the East. This time the two civilisations will clash as never before.  

And three ordinary people - a failed mage, a jaded mercenary and a lowly market girl - are about to discover that their actions may determine the fate of nations.


With the end of The Wheel of Time still a ways away, book two of The Stormlight Archive barely begun, and who knows how long to go before we see hide or hair of what's next from Messrs. Martin and Rothfuss - not to mention when - epic fantasy fans looked to be at a loose end this winter.

Enter David Hair.

An award-winning writer born and raised and returned to roost in New Zealand after living for a time in Britain and India, Hair has eight books behind him already - four each across two discrete series known as The Aotearoa and The Return of Ravana - but you'd be forgiven, I think, for never having heard of 'em. I hadn't, and I'm all for YA fantasy.

Hair's ninth novel, however, is his first aimed at an adult audience, and Mage's Blood is likely to find legions of receptive readers. Those who had imagined spending the coming season counting down the days till the arrival of A Memory of Light may take heart in the fact that there's at least one epic worth investing in this winter. The Moontide Quartet isn't as yet the equal of any of the aforementioned sagas, but like The Way of Kings before it, it lays the foundation for a commanding fantasy narrative that is at once familiar and ambitious.

Welcome, one and all, to Urte!
"When Kore made this land, he made two great continents, separated by vast oceans, and he commanded his sister Luna to make those waters impassable, so that East should never meet West. Learned, noble, enlightened West and base, depraved, idolatrous East should never meet, under Sun or Moon — so it was written.

"But Meiros, an Ascendant too craven to join the liberation of Yuros from the Rimoni yoke, left the fellowship of the Three Hundred and built that cursed Bridge, and from that Bridge do all of our woes come." (p18) 
So proclaimeth the living saint Lucia Fasterius, with whose elevation Mage's Blood begins. The mother of the Emperor in the West seems "intelligent, learned — kindly, even. But in her eyes something fanatic lurked, like a venomous snake." (p.19) This idea in particular proves pivotal to the narrative elements ahead, though the Mater-Imperia does a bang-up job of preparing readers in a more general sense, speaking as she does to what is clearly the quartet's core conflict - between opposing beliefs and competing creeds, and the people caught in the crossfire - as well as introducing us to one of the opening act's most fascinating characters.

The very man, Anton Meiros - an infamous mage - has lived a long, long life. Circa 927, which year this novel chronicles, he recalls the part he played in the rise of magic several centuries ago, when three hundred mere mortals ascended via a sacred ceremony that has since become the stuff of legend. More recently, Meiros sat on the sidelines of an ongoing holy war between the continents he himself connected when creating the Leviathan Bridge: a tidal gateway that opens for a brief period every twelve years.

This he did to facilitate trade. To encourage the commingling of cultures. Naive, no? Because of course, in the words of the Sultan of the city Kesh, "Some enemies come bearing weapons and uttering blasphemies and so you know them [but] worse are enemies who come with gifts and gracious deeds. You know them not as foes, until too late." (p.320) So it was that instead of swapping silks and spices and stories, the West waged a crusade, in response to which the East declared shihad. Already millions of lives have been lost to this conflict, and when the Leviathan Bridge opens again, millions more will be in the balance.

But after decades of regret, Meiros has finally divined a potential path to peace. His time is short, yet he foresees a way forward: he must father twins to an Antiopian bride. Monied beyond imagining, Meiros does what any rich idiot would: he buys one. Thus Ramita Ankesharan, all dutiful daughter, is spirited away to become an initially unwilling wife, leaving her childhood sweetheart Kazim Makani broken, and open to insidious suggestion:
"Look around you, Kazim: this is a Hebb city, under the thumb of drunken whiteskins with less wit than the camel pulling this cart. How did this happen? Because Anton Meiros and his Ordo Costruo allowed it to happen. Because he refused to do what decency and righteousness demanded and drown the emperor's legions. He continues to compound this treachery by not reversing that decision, not aiding the shihad. This evil, lecherous creature is rolling in the mountain of golf the emperor paid him for that betrayal." (p.352)
In this way, Kazim is fashioned into an assassin, with sights set on his former lover's hated husband.

Between them, these three make up our primary perspectives, but there are others on the periphery. There's Alaron Mercer, a would-be mage in training; Elena Anborn, a sleeper agent who has fallen for the family she was installed to destroy; and Elena's manipulative spymaster Gurvon Gyle.

Mage's Blood is unquestionably at its most affecting in the company of Meiros, Ramita and Kazim, but these others are yet purposeful perspectives. Gurvon gives us a glimpse of the Emperor's affairs, whilst Elena allows similar insight into the upper echelons on the other side of the great divide, as well as starring in the book's most thrilling set-piece. Last but not least, Alaron's chapters outline The Moontide Quartet's many-faceted magic system, in addition to illustrating another aspect of the fanaticism the living saint Lucia alludes to at the outset: the purity of one's blood. Disappointingly, this boils down to conspiracy and discrimination against "half-bloods" and "mudskins." (p.327)

Harry Potter says hey!

As do an array of other stories. Indeed, seasoned fantasy readers will be hard-pressed to identify a single section that does not evoke some separate series. I fear Mage's Blood is a far cry from original, but that isn't the slight it might be given how neatly these threads interweave... how naturally these disparate narratives sit side by side.

In its execution rather than its conception, then, Mage's Blood impresses. Hair's prose proves potent, and despite featuring some occasionally wearisome worldbuilding, a fair few awkward infodumps and simplistic depictions of several sensitive subjects, he pulls off a complex plot, and paces it perfectly, such that some 700 pages later you'll be rearing to keep reading.

For all that, though, what I most adored about Mage's Blood was its unflinching focus on character, particularly as regards Meiros and Ramita, and Ramita and Kazim. The incremental evolution of these strained relationships over the course of the first of The Moontide's four volumes is as emotional as it is surprising. By the conclusion, these three are completely different people, and in the interim, Hair handles their development very well.

There's a lot to Mage's Blood: a whole lot to like about it, and a little, admittedly, that seems derivative, or simply ill-fitting, but overall, it makes for an outstanding start to a series which already recalls epic fantasy's finest. In more ways than one, this book could be huge — an honour I dare say David Hair deserves.


This review was originally published, in a slightly altered form, on


Mage's Blood
by David Hair

UK Publication: October 2012, Jo Fletcher Books

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Friday 9 November 2012

Book Review | Anno Dracula by Kim Newman

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It is 1888 and Queen Victoria has remarried, taking as her new consort Vlad Tepes, the Wallachian Prince infamously known as Count Dracula. Peppered with familiar characters from Victorian history and fiction, the novel follows vampire Geneviève Dieudonné and Charles Beauregard of the Diogenes Club as they strive to solve the mystery of the Ripper murders.

Anno Dracula is a rich and panoramic tale, combining horror, politics, mystery and romance to create a unique and compelling alternate history. Acclaimed novelist Kim Newman explores the darkest depths of a reinvented Victorian London.

This brand-new edition of the bestselling novel contains unique bonus material, including a new afterword from the author, annotations, articles and alternate endings to the original novel.


The first chapter of Anno Dracula is taken directly from the diary of Dr. Seward. Herein the practitioner prowls the shadowy alleys of Whitechapel in search of a vampire to victimise, and in this strangely changed London, he isn't looking long. All too soon he happens upon Lulu Schön, and haunted by the loss of Lucy, the love of his life, Seward proceeds to systematically separate her head from her neck with a sharp silver knife.

Unaccustomed as we are at this early stage to the new world order of Kim Newman's 1992 novel, said slaying seems normal enough for a nosferatu narrative, but the inversion of this penny dreadful premise immediately realigns it in our minds. Had Lulu been a lone vampire stalking the seedy streets - as one presumes though the prologue - there would perhaps be a certain method to Seward's murderous madness. In Anno Dracula, however, she is merely one of an increasing number: the get of Vlad Tepes - now crowned Queen Victoria's royal consort - are everywhere, thus this third cold-blooded killing threatens to tear undead London asunder.
"Everyone began their arguments by declaring that it was about more than just three butchered harlots. It was about Disraeli's 'two nations', it was about the regrettable spread of vampirism among the lower classes, it was about the decline of public order, it was about the fragile equilibrium of the transformed kingdom. The murders were mere sparks, but Great Britain was a tinderbox." (p.109)
To bring the serial killer quickly christened Jack the Ripper to account for his crimes against inhumanity, the Diogenes Club dispatches Charles Beauregard, a rather dashing yet halfway hapless spy. Undertaking the subsequent investigations alongside the aforementioned agent of the Empire, the conflicted vampire rights activist Geneviève Dieudonné - an elder like Vlad Tepes herself - pursues Seward for her own reasons.

These, then, are our primary perspectives - exemplary and complementary, even as romance blooms between the pair like a puddle of blood - though we observe the unfortunate events of Anno Dracula from a few other points of view too; including the British Prime Minister's, and of course our killer's. But Charles and Geneviève are the heart and soul of this dark yet delightfully affectionate diatribe. They are fundamentally decent yet fittingly mysterious people who chaperone readers respectfully rather than condescendingly through the many complexities of an initially dense setting and the intense tale which plays out later.

The world, meanwhile, is built magnificently. Cribbing as much from fiction as history, Newman allows us ample opportunity to luxuriate in a wonderful London - conjured whole cloth from a vast patchwork of fabrics - that is at once familiar and different from the city we've all visited, if not literally then in literature, at least. It comes across convincingly, and comprehensively thought-through - such that the author's extensive annotations, aside the other stocking stuffers new to Titan's essential edition, make for rewarding reading in their own right - but neither overbearing nor, crucially, convoluted.
"It still seems to me something of a disappointment that Stoker's villain, after all his meticulous planning and with five hundred years of scheming monstrousness under his cloak, has no sooner arrived in Britain than he trips up and sows the seeds of his eventual undoing by an unlikely pursuit of the wife of a provincial solicitor." (pp.450-451)
As to the idea animating Anno Dracula, encapsulated by the author above: I admit it might not seem so novel in this over-saturated day and age, but fully two decades ago, upon the original publication of Newman's pitch-perfect pastiche, I warrant it was exactly that. And even now, this fiction is so rich and well-wrought that it stands head and shoulders (not to mention necks) above the most considered contemporary contenders.

A magnificent mash-up of fantastic fact and fantasies derived from fiction, Anno Dracula by Kim Newman is an enthralling alt-historical horror novel from word one, and it only becomes more glorious as it goes. One wonders how a chronicle of this caliber could possibly have fallen out of fashion in the first! If there's any justice in the world, its revision and reissuing in the modern marketplace in anticipation of Johnny Alucard's release next year should serve its author as well as this edition indubitably does us.


Anno Dracula
by Kim Newman

UK & US Publication: May 2011, Titan Books

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Wednesday 7 November 2012

Trailer Trash | A Machine For Pigs, Plus One

It looks like the scariest game I've ever played could soon be superseded.

Further to Friday's review of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a reasonably meaty teaser for the long-awaited sequel just hit. Here it is, in all its ghastly glory:

I suppose slaughterhouses are somewhat Silent Hillish, but it's been so long since that series lived up to my expectations that I don't mind the repetition one whit. In fact, this seems to me a much more portentous locale than the haunted mansion of The Dark Descent, and in my heart I'm glad that the developers aren't simply doing it over.

Tell you what, though: the sequence in the trailer there where the player character is desperately attempting to hide from a horrible monster, flicking his lantern on and off all the while to conserve precious fuel and losing his mind in the process? That gets to the heart of the essential experience of Amnesia.

And glutton for punishment that I am, that's a feeling I'm ready to repeat.

Co-created by Frictional Games and thechineseroom, the visionaries behind this year's Dear Esther, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is coming in early 2013 — possibly as promptly as January... though I wouldn't hold your breath.

Oh, and this looked cool too:

Pre-rendered? Probably.

Scary? Maybe.

Promising? Perhaps.

But worth supporting? Absolutely. Specifically because only recently, horror games seemed a dying breed - leftovers from a better era - yet here we have Outlast: a creepy new IP coming from brand new developer composed of former talent from several storied series, including Assassin's Creed, Uncharted, Prince of Persia and Splinter Cell.

Outlast is penciled in for release sometime next summer, and I'll be there, squared.

Will you? Or is there another horror game you're looking forward to?

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Cover Identity | The Drowning Girl in The Ocean at the End of the Lane

So I see the North American cover art for Neil Gaiman's forthcoming novel has been doing rounds around the internet:

Pretty, isn't it?

That is, excepting the nebulous blue behind the author's name, which is sure to be embellished before the big day.

But this is Cover Identity: art alone - even lovely art like this - is just not enough.

Thus, I found myself wondering what was going on in this picture. On the surface it's simple enough, but look more closely: note that the girl - little Lettie, judging by the following synopsis - is perfectly prone. So is she drowning?

Could she be dead already? A body dumped in the deep sea?

Or has my mind immediately gone to dark places? It's quite likely Lettie could simply be submerged in the otherworld that exists underwater... which sounds awfully like a Neil Gaiman novel to me. Wonderfully, we can all speculate, but who can truly say?

There's blurbage too, though I'm not sure if it contains a clue:
"They say you cannot go home again, and that is as true as a knife..."

A man returns to his childhood village seeking comfort in memories of his youth and the friend who long ago transformed his life.

Once upon a time in a rural English town, an eleven-year-old girl named Lettie Hempstock shows a little boy the most marvelous, dangerous, and outrageous things beyond his darkest imagination. But an ancient power has been disturbed, and now invasive creatures from beyond the known world are set loose. There is primal horror here, and menace unleashed — within the boy’s family and from the forces that have gathered to consume it.

Determined to have their way, these otherworldly beings will destroy a meddling little boy if he dares to get in the way. It will take calm, courage, and the cleverness of the extraordinary Hempstock women — Lettie, her mother, and her grandmother, to keep him alive. But his survival will come at an unexpected cost...

Storytelling genius Neil Gaiman delivers a whimsical, imaginative, bittersweet, and at times deeply scary modern fantasy about fear, love, magic, sacrifice, and the power of stories to reveal and to protect us from the darkness inside — a moving, terrifying, and elegiac fable for every age.
It's been eight years since the mixed blessing of Gaiman's last effort for adults, Anansi Boys, but I don't doubt that The Ocean at the End of the Lane will be brilliant.

That said, it's going to be a fleeting pleasure at best. According to and, Gaiman's new book is only 192 pages long!

Size certainly isn't everything, and I hate to sound ungrateful - make no mistake: this is worth getting worked up about - but after all this time I admit I'd been hoping for something... more.
I'll be there day one anyway, which is to say on the 18th of June 2013. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is coming from Headline Review hereabouts, and William Morrow in North America. Mark your calendars accordingly!

Monday 5 November 2012

Book Review | The Twelve by Justin Cronin

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The end of the world was only the beginning.

In his internationally bestselling and critically acclaimed novel The Passage, Justin Cronin constructed an unforgettable world transformed by a government experiment gone horribly wrong. Now the scope widens and the intensity deepens as the epic story surges forward with The Twelve.

In the present day, as the man-made apocalypse unfolds, three strangers navigate the chaos. Lila, a doctor and an expectant mother, is so shattered by the spread of violence and infection that she continues to plan for her child’s arrival even as society dissolves around her. Kittridge, known to the world as “Last Stand in Denver,” has been forced to flee his stronghold and is now on the road, dodging the infected, armed but alone and well aware that a tank of gas will get him only so far. April is a teenager fighting to guide her little brother safely through a landscape of death and ruin. These three will learn that they have not been fully abandoned—and that in connection lies hope, even on the darkest of nights.

One hundred years in the future, Amy and the others fight on for humankind’s salvation . . . unaware that the rules have changed. The enemy has evolved, and a dark new order has arisen with a vision of the future infinitely more horrifying than man’s extinction. If the Twelve are to fall, one of those united to vanquish them will have to pay the ultimate price.

A heart-stopping thriller rendered with masterful literary skill, The Twelve is a grand and gripping tale of sacrifice and survival.


Sometimes it feels like the world has been ending forever.

Alas, I haven't been around that long, so let's begin a little less expansively. In recent years, at least - in fiction and in film; in video games, comic books and on TV too - there has been an interest in the apocalypse that borders on the obscene. A fascination has emerged fully fledged, an obsession if you will - and for some folks it is exactly that - with how the world will end, and what, if anything, could come after.

Safe to say, surely, that this premise has been more prevalent than ever this century. Every week, another iteration of the apocalypse: in our mind's eye the world has already ended every which way except in actuality, such that a dead or dying planet no longer requires much imagination on our part, nor is this a theme deserving of attention in itself. In a sense, the end of everything has become the new normal. More often than not, it goes unremarked upon.

Unsurprisingly then, in the summer of 2010, the world ended... again. But this time, folks noticed. A consensus arose that this was an apocalypse with panache. Like Swan Song, or The Stand, The Passage envisioned the loss of life as we live it on a vast canvas, yet found its power in the particulars. In the tale of Amy, otherwise known as "the Girl from Nowhere, in whose person time was not a circle but a thing stopped and held, a century cupped in the hand," (p.532) and Brad Wolghast, a company man whose job it was to bring her in, but abandoned the task to spend his last years as a father to this immortal orphan.

This was but the first of The Passage's many parts, and in retrospect, it was the book's most affecting segment — though there were moments in those that followed, which revolved around the rise of the First Colony established after the virus, its fall some hundred years on, and the pilgrimage made into the wider world by several of its survivors. Come the conclusion, The Passage's core cast had learned - at long last - how they might go about fighting back.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves already, because before the story can end, it must begin again — or so Justin Cronin supposes.

Thus, The Twelve too hearkens back to the dawn of this dark new era in human history, with an opening act reminiscent of its successful predecessor's prolonged prologue. Herein we meet Wolghast's estranged ex, Lila, and spend some quality time with one Lawrence Grey, "a model citizen, at least by the standards of a chemically neutered child molester" (p.141) who awakens in Year Zero a changed man — or else a monster merely remade. As with Amy and her adopted daddy in The Passage, Lawrence and Lila have a part to play in the larger narrative, which is more than can be said for most of the characters we're introduced to during this pivotal period.

In any event, the bulk of hulking tale told in The Twelve occurs long after this origin story of sorts. Come to that, another five years have passed since the climax of The Passage, during which time the aforementioned survivors have gone their separate ways. Our leads Peter and Alicia are working with the Expeditionary, hunting down the eleven master vampires - sorry, virals! - that remain of the titular twelve established in the last novel — though beyond Babcock's demise they have had precious little success in their expensive endeavours, such that the operation has become unsustainable according to the Army.

Meanwhile, Michael has made a new life for himself as the man in charge of a dangerous biodiesel plant; Major Greer has found inner peace in prison, where he was sent for disobeying a direct order during the attack on Babcock; grieving over the loss of the love of his life, Hollis has surrounded himself with sin in a den of vice on the fringes of the city of Kerrville, TX. As to Sara herself, well... she's dead. Isn't she?

As it happens, she's not, no. On the other hand, she's hardly happy to be alive. During the destruction of First Colony, Sara was snatched by the henchmen of Horace Guilder, the despicable Director of a totalitarian territory known as the Homeland. However, all is not lost: insurrection is in the air, and soon - remembering that all things are relative in a book of this breadth - Sara finds herself involved with the rebels.

Nor is Sara's the only surprise revival. I won't go into detail, but suffice it to say another fallen figure from The Passage returns, albeit briefly, in The Twelve. Sadly, this second coming, as appealing as it is initially, only serves in the end to cheapen the impact of that character's passing.

Long story short, Cronin's core cast members have moved on. They're all over the place, both figuratively and literally — and so too, in turn, is The Twelve. A stupendous proportion of it is spent simply getting the gang back together; adding insult to injury, almost nothing of note happens until they are. And then?
"Everything possessed a striking familiarity, as if no time had passed since they'd faced Babcock on the mountaintop in Colorado. Here they all were, together once more, their fates drawn together as if by a powerful gravitational force, as if they were characters in a story that had already been written; all they had to do was act out the plot." (p.622)
Questions of agency aside, this excerpt is typical of The Twelve's heavy-handedness. Excepting sections at the very beginning and end of the text, Cronin's prose is considerably less... considered than it was at the outset of his epic. Characters new and old are developed in broad strokes only; the plot progresses in frustrating fits and starts; the sense of tension prevalent in The Passage is practically absent; meanwhile book two of this trilogy just hasn't the heart of the first part.

Credit to the author, then, that even in light of this laundry list of issues, The Twelve compels — to the point that I had a hard time putting it down. There exists an addictive quality to this increasingly Pez-esque apocalypse that means the majority of its excesses are easily overlooked. Cronin keeps us on our toes by shifting perspectives regularly, and however contrived the cliffhangers that end each chapter are - and they are - they do exactly what they're supposed to, leaving the reader immediately eager for more.

There's no shortage of action, either; set-up for the summer blockbuster this book could easily be, if Ridley Scott would only exercise his option. The Massacre of the Field is memorably horrendous, as is the bombastic attack on the Oil Road, and the explosive final showdown unfolds in exquisite slow motion.

Unlike The Passage, which made so much of so little - and so very well - The Twelve is at its best in the throes of such spectacle, and if in the periods between these superb set-pieces it seems shallow, and somewhat self-indulgent, rest assured that soon enough, there will be blood. And when it comes, you'll understand exactly why this sequel is worth reading.

In the beginning, The Twelve builds brilliantly, and the end - which is both "a beginning and an ending, standing adjacent but apart" (p.666) - is excellent. Regrettably, the intermediary episodes are substantially less successful, and to make matters worse they represent the length of any normal novel. But do push on through. Think of these dreary doldrums as the dead calm before the perfect storm, because in spite of its missteps, this isn't an apocalypse you can afford to miss.


The review was originally published, in a slightly altered form, on


The Twelve
by Justin Cronin

UK Publication: October 2012, Orion
US Publication: October 2012, Ballantine Books

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IndieBound / The Book Depository

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