Monday 30 December 2013

Book Review | End of the Road, ed. Jonathan Oliver

Each step leads you closer to your destination, but who, or what, can you expect to meet along the way? 

Here are stories of misfits, spectral hitch-hikers, nightmare travel tales and the rogues, freaks and monsters to be found on the road. The critically acclaimed editor of MagicThe End of The Line and House of Fear has brought together the contemporary masters and mistresses of the weird from around the globe in an anthology of travel tales like no other. Strap on your seatbelt, or shoulder your backpack, and wait for that next ride... into darkness.

An incredible anthology of original short stories from an exciting list of writers including the bestselling Philip Reeve, the World Fantasy Award-winning Lavie Tidhar and the incredible talents of S. L. Grey, Ian Whates, Jay Caselberg, Banjanun Sriduangkaew, Zen Cho, Sophia McDougall, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Anil Menon, Rio Youers, Vandana Singh, Paul Meloy, Adam Nevill and Helen Marshall.


For his fourth anthology for Solaris, a sister of sorts to 2010's very fine The End of the Line, editor Jonathan Oliver has turned to the road story: a genre, as he explains in his insightful introduction, widely mined in film and literature alike — in epic fantasy, for instance, insofar as the road represents the length of the hero's quest — though the fifteen short fictions which follow show that the form has much more to offer.

Thanks in part to Lavie Tidhar, whose guidance Oliver acknowledges, End of the Road is composed of stories from an expansive assortment of authors; some familiar, some fresh. The former camp includes Adam Nevill, S. L. Grey, Rio Youers, Philip Reeve, Ian Whates and, indubitably, Tidhar too; in the latter, a goodly number of newcomers hailing from here, there and everywhere. To wit, tales from Australia, Malaysia, the Philippines, India, South Africa, Thailand and the like lend End of the Road a welcome and indeed defining sense of diversity.

The score and more of stories to be told can be divided down the middle, into those that revolve around the road, and those that are more interested in where the road goes. As the aforementioned editor asserts, "destination (expected or otherwise) is a theme running throughout this anthology, but often it is the journey itself that is key to the tales. And that needn't be a physical journey (though, naturally, the majority of these stories do feature one); the journey into the self is also explored in various ways." (p.7)

Thursday 26 December 2013

Book Review | The Silence of Ghosts by Jonathan Aycliffe

When the Blitz starts in London, Dominic Lancaster, injured out of service at the battle of Narvik, accompanies his 10 year old sister Octavia to the family house on the shores of Ullswater in the Lake District. Octavia is profoundly deaf but at night she can hear disturbing noises in the house. When questioned by Dominic as to what she can hear, she replies: "voices."

Two nights later she comes into his bedroom to tell him that the dead children in the house want them to leave. And then Octavia falls mysteriously ill... during her sickness she tells Dominic he must go to the attic. There, he releases an older, darker evil that threatens the lives of Olivia and himself.


When Dominic Lancaster goes to war as a gunner about the HMS Hotspur, it's a chance for him to show his family — who have dismissed him to date as a dreadful disappointment — that he may well be worthy of their legacy: a successful port importing business which Dominic stands to inherit after his father's passing.

Instead, he becomes one of the first casualties of the conflict when he loses his leg at the Battle of Narvik. His subsequent recovery is tough; tough enough that Dominic's parents dispatch him to Hallinhag House in the little village of Ullswater... ostensibly to give him a peaceful place to recuperate, but in truth, as Dominic determines, so that he isn't underfoot when the Blitz begins.

He's not alone in the Lancasters' holiday home. For one thing, his ten-year-old sister Octavia is with him. Profoundly deaf for the larger part of her little life, she's another distraction to be disdained at every stage by a pair of appalling parents, but somehow Hallinhag House seems to be improving her hearing. The sounds she starts to hear, however, are of nothing natural.
The house seems more than quiet. Downcast. Full of memories. No, that's wrong. It's full of forgettings. All the years that have gone, and I know so little of the men and women who spent time here, even though they were my ancestors. When I have been here before, the house has seemed filled with light; but that was always the summer and it is winter now. Perhaps the house has picked up on my mood, sensed by new vulnerability, and knows how useless I am. Can houses sense what we feel? Do they feed off all the emotions that have been experienced between their walls? Octavia says there are ghosts here. I admonish her, and I watch her when she comes to this room. She might be serious, but I doubt it. She has no names for these ghosts. Maybe they are silent, like her. (p.29)
Initially, Dominic has little time for such frivolousness, because he too has his sights set on getting better; on learning to walk once more, first and foremost. Assisting him in this is the district nurse, Rose, a beautiful young woman who treats him with care and kindness. It isn't long before Dominic falls for her, though there will be no flings in the future he foresees.

Friday 20 December 2013

Book Review | Snowblind by Christopher Golden

Twelve years ago, the small town of Coventry, Massachusetts was in the grasp of a particularly brutal winter. And then came the Great Storm.

It hit hard. Not everyone saw the spring. Today the families, friends and lovers of the victims are still haunted by the ghosts of those they lost so suddenly. If only they could see them one more time, hold them close, tell them they love them.

It was the deadliest winter in living memory... until now.

When a new storm strikes, it doesn't just bring snow and ice, it brings the people of Coventry exactly what they've been wishing for. And the realisation their nightmare is only beginning.


Winter is upon us, and with it, inklings of Christmas.

There is no finer time, I find, for families and friends to get together, to share warmth and wine — mulled or otherwise — over stories of sleds and snowmen... all while a blanket of white settles softly upon the trees and streets outside.

But we all know that winter can be wicked as well; a season as cruel as it is cold. At its worst, winter, and the nightmarish things it brings, can kill. And in Snowblind by Christopher Golden, it does... or indeed they do.

"They were like wraiths, jagged, frozen bogeymen, and they whirled about on crushing gusts of wind." (pp.280-281) In the promising prologue of Golden's new novel — a prolonged piece set some years before the bulk of the book — these obscene creatures take eighteen souls young and old: a tragedy that tears apart the small Massachusetts community of Coventry.

A decade and change later, the survivors still struggle. And not just because they are haunted by hellish memories of that dark and stormy night:
Everything in Coventry — hell, the whole country — had gone downhill. The talking heads on TV said the economy was improving, but most of the guys he knew were still scared shitless that their jobs might evaporate out from underneath them. Either that or they were already unemployed. 
Doug himself was just barely hanging on. (p.55)

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Status Update | A Lion King Christmas

I don't know about you, but with Christmas day just a week away, I'm finally feeling festive.

Not least because last night I realised a dream more than a decade in the making, when the entirety of my family got together to attend a performance of The Lion King live. Simba's spotty performance did not ultimately undermine what was a wonderful show overall; a real visual feast that I'm so pleased to have seen.

I've been humming 'Be Prepared' ever since leaving the theatre, and this morning it occurred to me that I could do worse things in life than take Scar's advice.

Which is my way of saying that though I'm usually one of the very first folks to bang on about the year's best books — Top of the Scots has in the past happened in early December — in 2013 my other obligations have regrettably had to take precedence. I've had to stockpile columns, including this morning's edition of the British Genre Fiction Focus, and ready a fair few reviews to run on over the holidays. Truth be told, I've been so busy in November and December to date that it only just hit me that Christmas is coming.

And you know what? I want to enjoy it, so instead of spending the few days remaining to me this year putting together Top of the Scots, I'm going to give myself over to the Christmas spirit. To wit, I warrant you won't be hearing a whole lot from me over the holidays, but when I do get back to blogging, it will be worth the wait. Scots honour!

For a sneak peek at a few of my favourites, check out the Reviewers' Choice, in which I count down the three best British books I've read in 2013. I've contributed to another end of year feature as well: Strange Horizons has a few hundred words from me about the books I've gotten most lost in this year.

Now to lose myself in festive merriment...

You all have a brilliant Christmas, and a happy New Year, you hear?

Monday 16 December 2013

Book Review | The Woman in Black: Angel of Death by Martyn Waites

Autumn 1940, World War Two, the Blitz. Bombs are raining down, destroying the cities of Britain. In London, children are being removed from their families and taken to the country for safety.

Teacher Eve Parkins is in charge of one such group, and her destination is an empty and desolate house that appears to be sinking into the treacherous tidal marshes that surround it. Far from home and with no alternative, Eve and the children move in, but soon it becomes apparent that there is someone else in the house; someone who is far deadlier than any number of German bombs...


What a wonderful ghost story The Woman in Black was! Who, who has read the original 1983 novella, could possibly have forgotten the fate of Susan Hill's determined central character, the solicitor Arthur Kipps — not to mention his unfortunate family? Who, I ask you, slept soundly after having heard tell of the tragedy of Jennet Humfrye, the half-mad mother who saw her only son sucked into the murderous muck of the causeway connecting her home to the eerie village of Crythin Gifford? Who, in the end, could hold her haunting of Eel Marsh House against her?

Over the course of The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, I came to, I'm afraid. In this "fully authorised" sort-of-sequel, though it be blessedly brief, her "bleached-bone" features appear so frequently that she seemed little less chilling, not to mention sympathetic, than the wilting wallpaper which adorns the walls of the ancient estate where at the outset our hapless protagonist is dispatched.

Forty-odd years on from the events of the darkly fantastic classic this new book purports to take its cues from, the Blitz is in full swing. Eve Parkins, a trainee teacher, removes a class of children from the dangers of living in London — and from the comfort of their families, it follows — to a mouldering old mansion in the countryside where weird things start happening immediately.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Book Review | S. by J. J. Abrams & Doug Dorst

A young woman picks up a book left behind by a stranger. Inside it are his margin notes, which reveal a reader entranced by the story and by its mysterious author. She responds with notes of her own, leaving the book for the stranger, and so begins an unlikely conversation that plunges them both into the unknown.

The book: Ship of Theseus, the final novel by a prolific but enigmatic writer named V.M. Straka, in which a man with no past is shanghaied onto a strange ship with a monstrous crew and launched onto a disorienting and perilous journey.

The writer: Straka, the incendiary and secretive subject of one of the world’s greatest mysteries, a revolutionary about whom the world knows nothing apart from the words he wrote and the rumors that swirl around him.

The readers: Jennifer and Eric, a college senior and a disgraced grad student, both facing crucial decisions about who they are, who they might become, and how much they’re willing to trust another person with their passions, hurts, and fears.

Conceived by filmmaker J. J. Abrams and written by award-winning novelist Doug Dorst, S. is the chronicle of two readers finding each other in the margins of a book and enmeshing themselves in a deadly struggle between forces they don’t understand. It is also a love letter to the written word.


S. is not what you think it is.

From the moment you slit open the slipcase — the same slipcase that bears the only explicit admission of J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst's involvement — and slit it you will, in an act of introductory destruction that implicates us in the worst impulses of the characters we'll meet in a moment — from the second, then, that we see what waits within, there is the suspicion that S. is not so much a novel as it is an object. A lavish literary artefact.

But also an artefact of art. Of passion. Of intellect. Of ambition. Of all these things and so much more, in the form of a metafiction so meticulous and considered and meaningful, finally, that House of Leaves may very well have been bettered — and I don't make that statement lightly.

What awaits, in any case, is an unassuming clothbound book called Ship of Theseus. The author: a V. M. Straka, apparently. On the spine is stuck a library sticker, complete with an authentic Dewey Decimal reference. BOOK FOR LOAN is emblazoned on the endpapers, and on the backboard, below a record of the dates it's been borrowed on — Ship of Theseus has been untouched, we see, for thirteen years — an apocalyptic warning from the library to KEEP THIS BOOK CLEAN; that "borrowers finding this book pencil-marked, written upon, mutilated or unwarrantably defaced, are expected to report it to the librarian."

The title page makes a mockery of all this. Lightly pencilled in is an instruction to return the book to such-and-such a workroom in the library of Pollard State University. Then, in pen, a note from Jen, who responds as follows: "Hey — I found your stuff while I was shelving. (Looks like you left in a hurry!) I read a few chapters + loved it. Felt bad about keeping the book from you, since you obviously need it for your work. Have to get my own copy!"

Suffice it to say she doesn't. Instead, Jen and the other scribbler, who eventually introduces himself as Eric — though that's not his real name either — compare their notes about the novel, making an immediate mess of the margins. See, irrespective of the resulting small caps scrawl, Ship of Theseus is something of a puzzle...

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Book Review | The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough

Tonight is a special, terrible night.

A woman sits at her father's bedside watching the clock tick away the last hours of his life. Her brothers and sisters — all traumatised in their own ways, their bonds fragile — have been there for the past week, but now she is alone.

And that's always when it comes.

As the clock ticks in the darkness, she can only wait for it to find her...


In my review of Mayhem, published this past spring, I suggested that generations hence, people will revere this as the year of Sarah Pinborough. With six of her books published in the six months since, I think my argument still stands. There was Poison, Charm and Beauty too — a trio of neat novellas riffing on familiar fairy tales with such warmth and wit that Once Upon a Time seems shallow and artless in comparison — whilst the final volume of her first trilogy, The Forgotten Gods, will be re-released in North America in early December, as the previous books in said series have been throughout 2013.

It falls to The Language of Dying to bring the year of Sarah Pinborough to a conclusion, and the postscript it presents is both bittersweet and truly beautiful. It's a life-affirming short novel about a tired old man waiting to die and the family of five that come together to bid him goodbye, and though I did not enjoy it at all, from first to last I admired The Language of Dying wholeheartedly.

It begins, as will we, with this:
There is a language to dying. It creeps like a shadow alongside the passing years and the taste of it hides in the corners of our mouths. It finds us whether we are sick or healthy. It is a secret hushed thing that lives in the whisper of the nurses' skirts as they rustle up and down our stairs. They've taught me to face the language one syllable at a time, slowing creating an unwilling meaning. 
Cheyne-Stoking. (p.1)
In other words a common consequence of chain smoking; as is the terminal lung cancer our unnamed narrator's father has. He's been struggling for months, falling further and further from the waking world for weeks, and with only her to help; meanwhile she, as we'll see, has issues of her own — not least the fear that she simply doesn't fit. To her credit, however, she's been with him since the beginning of this... and she'll see it through to the end as well.

Monday 9 December 2013

The Scotsman Abroad | Smugglivus and the Future of Speculative Fiction

Today, it's my pleasure to point you all in the direction of a post I wrote recently that, in a turn up for the textbooks, wasn't for either The Speculative Scotsman or

We'll talk more about my plans for Top of the Scots 2013 in time, but rest assured that I have been devoting a lot of thought to the prospect of the blog going forward, not least how to handle our annual accounting of the best books and movies and video games of the previous year. 

Indeed, I've been thinking so seriously about these things that when I received an email from Ana and Thea about contributing for the third time in three years to their festive feature, I decided to do something a little different.

To wit, this morning on The Book Smugglers, an overview of the most exciting science fiction and fantasy forthcoming in 2014... according to me, at least:
Fantasy fans have Fall of Light to look forward to, the second volume of The Kharkanas Trilogy by Steven Erikson. The mighty mind behind Malazan also has another new novel on the cards — a spacefaring farce with the working title Willful Child — which brings us neatly to our next category: the science fiction of the future! 
The Echo by James Smythe will be the first such specimen to arrive. I’d had the pleasure of reading this one already, so I can say with certainty that it’s a fully realised sequel which takes what was great about The Explorer and makes it bigger, better, and still more momentous. Meanwhile a second Smythe is poised to be published in the UK in late May: No Harm Can Come to a Good Man is about something called ClearVista, a revolutionary new technology which purports to predict probabilities.
Please do pop on over to The Book Smugglers' blog to read the rest of the post, and if you like, let us know what you and yours are looking forward to reading next year.

And hey: hang around! Not just because Smugglivus is always a bunch of fun — though, you know, it is — but because this week alone there will be guest posts by some of the very finest of my fellow bloggers, including Jared of Pornokitsch, Stefan Raets of Far Beyond Reality, and Justin Landon of Staffer's Book Review

Good reading: guaranteed.

Thursday 5 December 2013

Book Review | The Waking That Kills by Stephen Gregory

The ghosts that haunt us are not always strangers...

When his elderly father suffers a stroke, Christopher Beale returns to England. He has no home, no other family. Adrift, he answers an advert for a live-in tutor for a teenage boy. The boy is Lawrence Lundy, who possesses the spirit of his father, a military pilot — missing, presumed dead. Unable to accept that his father is gone, Lawrence keeps his presence alive in the big old house and the overgrown garden. His mother, Juliet, keeps the boy at home, away from other children, away from the world; and in the suffocating heat of a long summer, she too is infected by the madness of her son.

Christopher becomes entangled in the strange household, enmeshed in the oddness of the boy and his fragile mother. Only by forcing the boy to release the spirit of his father can he find any escape from the haunting.


We may not know why, or when, or for what, but we will all, in our lives, lose someone we love.

Loss is not the whole of the story, of course. All too often, death itself is shocking, awful, to say nothing of the terrible tales that culminate there, but it's only when we let go — of the memory, the expectation, the guilt or need or even relief — it's only then than we begin to come to terms with the end.

Before The Waking That Kills is over, teacher Christopher Beale will have learned to let go of his father. Though his father is still alive at the start of this short novel — Stephen Gregory's first for five years — he is a sad shadow of the man he once was. A monumental mason by trade, which is to say someone who carves names and dates on graves, Christopher's father has had a stroke, and lives now in a nursing home in Grimsby, England; bewildered, bitter and impotent.

Christopher himself has been working in Borneo for seven years or so. It's a credit to his character that he hightails it home when he hears of his father's condition, ostensibly to be there for the man that made him, but he is, alas, distracted; trapped, perhaps, in an increasingly sinister scenario. "From the sweet, seductive, pitcher-plant entrapment of Borneo, to the Lincolnshire wolds" (p.146) he goes, to take a job tutoring a troubled teenager.

When he drives his father's hearse to Chalke House, however, where will live for the length of the sweltering summer that's just begun, Christopher finds that his status as a teacher is in truth a token. Instead, he is to be a friend to Lawrence Lundy first, and a father-figure afterwards, given the accidental death of his dad, whose memory Lawrence refuses to let lie.

He is a hard boy just to befriend, however. And it's clear from the first that he and his mother are keeping secrets from Christopher, though the truth will only out when he grows closer to both...

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Book Review | The Art of Hunting by Alan Campbell

With the Haurstaf decimated, the Unmer have seized the palace at Awl. The Unmer Prince Paulus Marquetta discovers an ally in the blind girl Ianthe, albeit a dangerous one. She has the power to destroy his mind with a single thought.

But Ianthe’s friendship with the Unmer has made her dangerous enemies. The exiled Unmer lord, Argusto Conquillas is determined to challenge the prince and his followers — and kill anyone who gets in his way.

When the disgraced Gravedigger soldier Granger learns of his daughter’s danger, he must use every scrap of his cunning to protect her. Even that may not be enough as the Unmer, in their quest to unlock the secrets of the universe, have made a bargain with a god... a deal that threatens to destroy the world.


The Art of Hunting begins with what must be the most powerful prologue I've read in recent years. Centuries before the events Alan Campbell has resolved to record in The Gravedigger Chronicles, the drowned world whose depths we plumbed previously is as yet a dry and deadly desert. It's particularly deadly on the dark day the prologue takes place because the world is at war: the Unmer and the Haurstaf battle then — as they will battle again — for supremacy over everything.

One side has taken the conflict out of human hands, however, and called upon a god to finish the fight. "Those who fear to utter Duna's name call her Lady of Clay, for it is said her father moulded her and cast her in the furnace that raged at the birth of time." (p.8) Now she rides into the realm astride a massive mount made of nightmarish materiel:
Composed entirely of the bodies of those it had slain [...] its massive limbs were full of mouths and faces and scraps of armour, swords and shields. A great mess of flesh and metal. And yet those bodies from which it was composed were not dead. Hundreds of slaughtered soldiers gazed out from its knees and its shoulders and gnashed their teeth and screamed. (p.9)
In the midst of this we meet one such soldier whose last wish is "to sit in the dirt and drink the last of his rum and think about how he came to be in this dismal hole on the final morning of his life," (p.1) but his reverie is interrupted by the arrival of an archer who appears entirely unfazed by the horrors of war. "He was carrying a white bow carved from a dragon's rib and had a fine and unusual quiver — a black glass cylinder patterned with runes — lashed to his belt." (p.2) This is Conquillas: the hunter whose harrowing art Campbell's new novel is named in honour of. With but his bow and arrows, Conquillas means to destroy Duna.

And as the distant sound of thunder rumbles, he does.

Friday 29 November 2013

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

The battle lines have been drawn. The people of Russalka turn upon one another in a ruthless and unwavering civil war even while their world sickens and the deep black ocean is stained red with their blood. As the young civilisation weakens, its vitality fuelling the opposing militaries at the cost of all else, the war drums beat louder and louder.

Katya Kuriakova knows it cannot last. Both sides are exhausted. It can only be a matter of days or weeks before they finally call a truce and negotiate. But the days and weeks pass, the death toll mounts, and still the enemy will not talk. Then a figure from the tainted past returns to make her an offer she cannot lightly refuse: a plan to stop the war. But to do it she will have to turn her back on everything she has believed in, everything she has ever fought for, to make sacrifices greater even than laying down her own life.

To save Russalka, she must become its greatest enemy.


In an appealing and endearing departure from his dark comedy novels starring the necromancer and detective Johannes Cabal, Jonathan L. Howard engineered a wonderful underwater world in the fun-filled first volume of The Russalka Chronicles.

Katya's World introduced us to a girl who had to grow up fast when she was drawn into a conflict that spiralled out of control quickly, and has continued to do so since. Colonised by human forces many moons ago before being abandoned, and at the last attacked, Russalka was recently rocked by an uprising of rebels determined to wrest control from the FMA. It follows, then, that in Katya's War, we see this world at its worst.
The world had been much simpler then. Now, however... now she'd seen the kind of people who start wars at first hand. The experience had not filled her with confidence that they would be doing everything in their power to bring things to a peaceful conclusion. The FMA was furious with the Yagizban because the Yags had betrayed them not once but twice, first conspiring with the Terrans during the war, and then by preparing for a Terran return that never came. For their part, the Yagizban were sick of the Federals for getting into a war with Earth in the first place, and then using it as an excuse for never-ending martial law. They would fight like zmey over a manta-whale carcass, until one of them was dead, and the manta was torn to pieces. (p.46)
Very sensibly, Katya has kept her own council since the war kicked off. Just making her meagre ends meet has been enough to keep busy with, and were it not for the insistence of a few familiar faces, she'd have been happy to keep at this neverending quest for cargo to transport.

The legendary Yagizban pirates Havilland Kane and Tasya Morevna have other plans for her, however. They capture Kayta and forcibly escort her to a fallen facility where the awful cost of the war is in evidence: the bodies of innocent men, women and children are everywhere. Why? She can't help but wonder. And for what?

Thursday 28 November 2013

Season's Greetings | Happy Thanksgiving

So I hear a bunch of you all are on holiday this weekend, the better to celebrate something called Thanksgiving...

I kid, of course. As a matter of fact, I've incorporated writing exercises inspired by Thanksgiving into all the classes it's been my pleasure to teach this week, thinking it would be no bad thing to make a few folks aware of all they have that they should be thankful for, rather than moping in the Great British tradition over what they do not.

Today, in any case, it's my turn. Because I do not do what I do in a vacuum. I could not. I would not. To wit, I'd like to take this opportunity to say how grateful I am.

To my fellow readers and reviewers, then: thanks, first of all, for continuing to visit The Speculative Scotsman, and for pointing me in the direction of some terrific new reading material. For talking to me in the comments, and for engaging elsewhere in debates that could make the publishing industry a more positive place.

To the editors who make my work a little prettier, and to the publicists who make the inevitable administrative bit of this business a pleasure as opposed to a chore: I say thankee, sai.

Last but not least, I'd like to give thanks to the authors whose wonderful worlds make my own that much more interesting. I can't imagine my life without you and the work you do.

So whether you're in North America or not: happy Thanksgiving, guys. Do enjoy your food... and your fake football! :)

Monday 25 November 2013

Book Review | Balfour and Meriwether in the Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs by Daniel Abraham

When a private envoy of the queen and member of Lord Carmichael's discreet service goes missing, Balfour and Meriwether are asked to look into the affair. They will find a labyrinth of dreams, horrors risen from hell, prophecy, sexual perversion, and an abandoned farmhouse on the moors outside Harrowmoor Sanitarium.

The earth itself will bare its secrets and the Empire itself will tremble in the face of the hidden dangers they discover, but the greatest peril is the one they have brought with them...


In recent years, the adventures of Balfour and Meriwether have been a rare yet redolent pleasure. Daniel Abraham's dashing duo have appeared in only two tales to date — 'The Emperor's Vengeance' and 'The Vampire of Kabul' — both of which I reread this week, the better to be ready to review what is certainly their best and most complex quest yet.

I really needn't have — happily, no prior knowledge is required by The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs — though it was a pleasure to immerse myself again in said secret histories, and this novella's revelatory resolution did prove particularly potent on the back of those stories.

Again per the precedent set by its predecessors, there is the sense that The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs is but an episode in the larger canon of Balfour and Meriwether's collaborative careers as agents of Queen and country. Here, however, the episode is essentially supersized; to wit, Abraham is able to expand his narrative and develop his characters in a fairly fascinating fashion.

Friday 22 November 2013

Book Review | Still Life by Tim Lebbon

The incursion has been and gone, the war is over, and the enemy is in the land, remote and ambiguous. The village outskirts are guarded by vicious beasts, making escape impossible. The village itself is controlled by the Finks, human servants to the enemy — brutal, callous, almost untouchable. 

Everything is less than it was before... time seems to move slower, the population is much denuded, and life itself seems to hold little purpose. This is not living, it’s existing.

But in a subjugated population, there is always resistance.

For Jenni, the happiest part of this new life is visiting the pool in the woods, seeing her dead husband within, and sharing memories of happier times. It calms her and makes her feel alive.

But the resistance comes to her for help. 

And when her dead husband tells her it is time to fight, Jenni’s life is destined for a shattering change.


Jenni and Marc have it all, almost. A relaxed relationship, equal parts attraction, affection and respect. They enjoy their youth to the full, and look forward to growing old together, too — but not before they've made a small army of babies to take care of them later. And what better place to start a family than the idyllic little village they live in? It is "a beautiful, safe place, but sometimes beautiful and safe isn't enough for Marc." Sometimes, sadly, Jenni espies a look in his eyes that speaks of his "need for fear. [His] delight in danger." (p.8) So when one dark day the enemy emerge — whether from the heavens or the earth, even now no-one knows — he's one of the first people to volunteer.

He doesn't come home a hero, however. He doesn't come home at all. Hardly anyone does. The enemy are a wholly overwhelming force, thus this and every single instance of resistance since has proved to be brutal, and in the final summation futile. Indeed, you could measure the cost of man's defiance in disemboweled bodies; each action has only added to the enemy's ever-lengthening otherworldly wonder: the Road of Souls. Which is made of mooshed human.

All Jenni has of Marc when Still Life begins is his memory, though this takes a strange shape in the milieu of Tim Lebbon's immensely messed-up new novella: at a local plunge pool, formerly a favourite spot of theirs, his reflection still watches from the water. She often goes there to gaze at it... to lose herself in the blessed memories his image brings.

Jenni doesn't know if it's normal, now, for the dead to appear to the living like this. It could be, conceivably; most everything else has been different since the incursion. She'd ask, perhaps, but she's afraid to, for though the enemy are certainly present, no-one can say with any certainty what they are, or where. As Jenni reflects, "in truth, no one really knew what the enemy wanted, where it had come from, or why. Sometimes not knowing made everything so much worse." (p.12)

Music, if I may, to this reader's ears!

In any case, the enemy — and that's all Lebbon calls them — the enemy, then, leave it to their embedded agents to ensure the obedience of the surviving villagers. These Overseers — or Finks, if not to their faces — are merely evil people, keen to flaunt their newfound power, thus trust has become a rare commodity in this subjugated community.

But as the synopsis says, "in a subjugated population, there is always resistance," and a plan is being fashioned to kill the Finks: merely a small step to pave the way for more significant strides, yet if Jenni refuses to play her pyromaniacal part, the entire village could be crushed — and initially, at least, she is unwilling. However when Marc's mirror image urges her to fight back for once, she realises — too late, I dare say — that there may be a better way.

With a Star Wars novel, two volumes of his YA series Toxic City, Coldbrook for Hammer Horror, a collection of short stories and The Heretic Land all published since 2012, Tim Lebbon has been particularly prolific in recent years, but Still Life is his first novella for quite a while, and I think it's no coincidence that it is the finest thing he's written since Echo City. In part this is because it doesn't, at 80 pages, overstay its welcome, as to my mind a number of the author's full-on novels have. Its lesser length also allows Lebbon to establish an atmosphere, create a compelling character and elaborate his narrative without falling into that dastardly dark fantasy trap of explaining the inexplicable into insignificance.

Now it's not without fault. I'm afraid there isn't a great deal of depth to Jenni's relationship with her late, lamented lover — would that their pairing had been a little less picture perfect — and parts of the piece lack polish: one last pass could have made Lebbon's prose all the prettier, which may have made the bubble our protagonist exists in to begin with that much more convincing.

But by and large, this is bloody good stuff, with no paucity of plot — Still Life reads like a short novel rather than a long short — an admirable unwillingness to undermine the unknowable nature of the enemy, and, in the Road of Souls, the single most horrific idea anyone has had in years.

I've had my ups and downs with the tales Tim Lebbon has told in recent years, but Still Life is undoubtedly one of the former sort, to the point that I wish this edition weren't so strictly limited — to just 225 copies in toto for the time being — particularly considering Jim Burns' fantastic cover art. To wit, dark fantasy fans would be well advised to order Still Life direct from Spectral Press before it's gone for good.


Still Life
by Tim Lebbon

UK Publication: November 2013, Spectral Press

Buy this book direct
from Spectral Press

Recommended and Related Reading

Thursday 21 November 2013

Cover Identity | Honor Among Thieves

Spotted yesterday on, the revised cover art for the Star Wars novel he and Ty Franck are currently collaborating on:

Though the Expanse novels have come to be an annual tentpole treat for me, I'm not sure how I feel about James S. A. Corey working on a Star Wars novel. It's not a franchise I'm particularly interested in... though I confess I'm tempted to make an exception for Honor Among Thieves, which is due out surprisingly soon — in March from LucasBooks.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Guest Post | "Dreaming Up Dream London" by Tony Ballantyne

"Smart, stylish, and as alarming as it is indubitably alluring, Dream London deftly demonstrates that the weird still has a thing or two to prove," I concluded in my review of Tony Ballantyne's new novel — out now from the fine folks at Solaris.

If there was one thing that captivated me about the book — and there wasn't; there were many — it was its setting: an ever-shifting city populated by people who wake up a little different every day. To wit, today on The Speculative Scotsman, the author kindly took some time to explain how he dreamed up Dream London.


In Dream London the city changes a little every night and the people change a little every day.

Much of the book was inspired by my years living in London. During that time I filled notebooks with scenes and ideas for a novel based there, but somehow it never seemed to gel. Then one day a friend recounted an experience in India (the scene on the first page of the book, in fact) and the story fell into place, just like that.

I had the scenes, I had the story, London's narrow streets and eclectic range of styles provided the backdrop, all that was missing now was the atmosphere. I knew the feeling I was trying to convey, so I sat down and tried to put down on paper some of the things that had inspired that feeling within me.  

There were many things on the list: a furniture shop in Clitheroe, a children's theme park in North Yorkshire, Belle-Île, off the coast of Brittany, Judith II by Klimt...

Three things, however, stood out — one book, and two pieces of music.

The book first: The Enchanted Wood, by Enid Blyton. Partly because I read it when I was so young and everything is so magical then, but particularly because there is no logic to it. Magic there is magic, it's never explained, it's never consistent, it's always enchanting. I can half remember other stories; the Wishing Chair, green smoke coming from witches cauldrons... 

Then there's the music.
Despite featuring his 8th symphony in Capacity, I'm not actually that great a Mahler fan, but there is something very emotive about parts of his music, something that sends my mind wandering into other worlds. The second and third movements of Mahler's Seventh Symphony sound spooky and magical, but magical in an overperfumed, degenerate manner, I played these especially when I was writing the night scenes.  

And lastly there is Kate Bush. Years ago I taught sword fencing on a children's camp in America. I remember listening to Lionheart and Never Forever in the middle of forest in Connecticut whilst waiting for groups to arrive. Time seemed to extend there, the rest of the world seemed to recede, and I was left with the impression that the paths back to camp were lengthening and twisting all the while...

Those lengthening paths led me down to Dream London.


Thank you so much, Tony, for stopping by to describe how you came to create such an incredible place.

For more about the author, here's his blog — and I do believe he tweets, too.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Book Review | Dream London by Tony Ballantyne

Captain Jim Wedderburn has looks, style and courage. He's adored by women, respected by men and feared by his enemies. He's the man to find out who has twisted London into this strange new world.

But in Dream London the city changes a little every night and the people change a little every day. The towers are growing taller, the parks have hidden themselves away and the streets form themselves into strange new patterns. There are people sailing in from new lands down the river, new criminals emerging in the East End and a path spiralling down to another world.

Everyone is changing, no one is who they seem to be.


Most of us know better than to judge a book by its cover. What with marketing's manifest need to mislead, this is a useful rule of thumb... albeit one easier said than done. But for Tony Ballantyne's new novel? Maybe make an exception, because Joey Hi-Fi's starkly stunning cityscape tells the same terrific tale Dream London does.

Take a closer look, if you like. This isn't London as as we know it, no, yet a great many of the capital's architectural landmarks are present... if not necessarily correct. There's Big Ben at the centre, standing triumphant at the edge of the Thames. To the left of it, the distinctive domes of St. Paul's Cathedral catch the shadow of several crooked cranes; and to the right, there's the Shard, and the Gherkin as well — all rendered in grayscale most grave.

But there's something very wrong with this picture, isn't there? Never mind the fact that these distinctive buildings are arranged strangely. Instead, look above and beyond the iconic clock. What's that massive skyscraper doing there? Why in the world are blood red tentacles pouring out of its peak? And wait a second... is that a gargantuan ant?

Yes. Yes it is.
It had started out as a glass skyscraper, that was obvious, but over the past year it had grown taller and taller. The top had started to bulge and had turned from glass and steel into something else. It looked like a plant budding. I wondered if those were vines or creepers I could see, spilling down from the top of the tower. (p.85)
Fully twice as tall as Big Ben, Angel Tower has 1204 floors, and a new level is added every day. It obviously doesn't belong, yet all of Dream London has come to revolve around it regardless. Why? Well, that's what Ballantyne's book is about, at bottom.

No-one can say with anything resembling certainty why the city is so different today, though most residents at least remember when the changes came. It's only been a year — no time at all in the scheme of things — but London is essentially unrecognisable now, as are most of those folks unlucky enough to live there. Consider our protagonist James Wedderburn: a soldier of old, his new persona, Captain Jim, is at present engaged in the business of a pimp. He looks after the ladies of Belltower End, and takes pride in the pleasure he purveys; or, to put it more plainly, the sex he sells — and pursues in his own time, too.

But property is at a premium in Dream London; someone has been buying up all the real estate of late, and subsequently squeezing every shilling out of the people who need it. So when a flamboyant man called Alan — also Alphonse — offers the Captain outright ownership of Belltower End in exchange for a few unnamed favours, he simply can't resist the thought of the profit.

Alan/Alphonse's emotional motivation, meanwhile, speaks to the way the city has shifted:
"I'm a man whose way of life is being pushed back into the shadows. I'm a man who doesn't want things to go back to the way they were a hundred years ago when people like me were outcasts. And I'm not alone. This new world is creating winners and losers, and some of the losers still have enough power and influence to try and fight back. We want you to help us." (p.25)
Alan/Alphonse isn't the only figure interested in the Captain's assistance. Dream London's double-dealing drug lord, the Daddio, also sends an envoy: namely Honey Peppers, a sweet-looking little girl with the foul mouth and murderous mind of a career criminal. Honey Peppers only promises our protagonist his continued existence, so the crafty Captain promptly accepts the former fella's offer, and sets about investigating the root cause of all this wrongness.

All roads lead to Rome, of course — or rather the great skyscraper at the centre of the city. If "Dream London is a place where the normal rules of the universe no longer apply [then] Angel Tower is the place where the rules are rewritten." (p.139) Thus the Captain uses his new contacts to secure a position on the 829th floor, where it becomes clear that the various changes made to the capital are far more momentous than he had imagined:
I knew that Dream London was changing the shape of the buildings, and I knew that the books were changing, I was used to that. I was used to the way Dream London rewrote the words on the page. It even rewrote people's behaviour. I had accepted that. People could be manipulated. Who knew that better than Captain Jim Wedderburn and his lovely girls? 
But I didn't realise that Dream London was changing the shape of the numbers as well. That gripped deep inside. It felt so wrong. (p.103)
So wrong... yet so right!

I dare say Dream London is difficult to get into, initially — the Captain is a hard man to feel for, whilst this world of altered aesthetics, reengineered roles and unfamiliar fundamentals is so deeply disconcerting that identifying what's wonderful about it, and what's just window-dressing, takes time — but once you get into the swing of things, Ballantyne's exceptional new novel goes from strength to strength.

The jaunty plot kicks in quickly, and develops in interesting directions; the pace quickens until readers are rattling along happily like runaway train cars on runaway train tracks; and though questions accumulate, Ballantyne hardly hoards the answers we require, as certain authors without the walk to back up all their talk tend to.

Resolutions are arrived at with refreshing regularity. Just desserts are soon served up on glittering glass platters. This drip-feed of facts and complicating factors, however cracked, helps us invest in the hallucinatory setting despite our incipient resistance to it, and as the tale twists and turns, the characters writhe and wriggle in rhythm. Even the crass Captain seems sympathetic eventually.

Dream London reminded me of Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris series, The City's Son by Tom Pollock, and the Bas-Lag books, too — particularly Perdido Street Station — but in typical Dream London tradition, the opposite is true too. As the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winner Chris Beckett contends in the quote on the captivating cover that demanded I take note of this text, Tony Ballantyne's masterfully imagined new novel is "unlike anything I've ever read before." Smart, stylish, and as alarming as it is indubitably alluring, Dream London deftly demonstrates that the weird still has a thing or two to prove.


Dream London
by Tony Ballantyne

UK & US Publication: October 2013, Solaris

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Friday 15 November 2013

Book Review | The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar

For seventy years they guarded the British Empire. Oblivion and Fogg, inseparable friends, bound together by a shared fate. Until one night in Berlin, in the aftermath of the Second World War, and a secret that tore them apart.

But there must always be an account... and the past has a habit of catching up to the present.

Now, recalled to the Retirement Bureau from which no one can retire, Fogg and Oblivion must face up to a past of terrible war and unacknowledged heroism — a life of dusty corridors and secret rooms, of furtive meetings and blood-stained fields — to answer one last, impossible question: what makes a hero?


Lavie Tidhar has a theory about superheroes. About what they are and what they represent; about where they come from and why we hardly ever see any British ones. These are questions the author asks and answers on various occasions over the course of his indescribably demanding if accordingly rewarding new novel, though Tidhar's particular position is best encapsulated by the testimony given by a fictionalised version of Joseph Shuster — the co-creator of Superman alongside Jerry Siegel, who also appears — during the trial of Dr. Vomacht, the Nazi scientist whose cavalier prodding of probability resulted in The Violent Century's so-called Übermenschen.

Note that the following quote comes from near the end of the novel, but know, moreover, that The Violent Century plays so fast and loose with clarity and linearity that this is as fitting a fashion as any I can imagine to start talking about a book so bleak and mysterious that any resulting discussion of it is destined to be difficult.
— I specialise in... in a form of dynamic portraiture. [...] Of the changed. Of Beyond-Men. And women. Of... for lack of a better word, Shuster says, I like to think my work focuses on heroes.
— But what's a hero? the counsellor says, again.
— It seems to me, Shuster says, it seems to me... you must understand, I think, yes, you need to first understand what it means to be a Jew.
— I think I have some experience in that, the counsellor for the defence says drily — which draws a few laughs from the audience. On the stand, Schuster coughs. His eyes, myopic behind the glasses, assume a dreamy look. Those of us who came out of that war, he says. And before that. From pogroms and persecution and to the New World. To a different kind of persecution, perhaps. But also hope. Our dreams of heroes come from that, I think. Our American heroes are the wish-fulfilment of immigrants, dazzled by the brashness and the colour of this new world, by its sheer size. We needed larger-than-life heroes, masked heroes to show us that they were the fantasy within each and every one of us. The Vomacht wave did not make them, it released them. Our shared hallucination, our faith. Our faith in heroes. This is why you see our American heroes but never their British counterpart. Our is the rise of Empire, theirs is the deline. Our seek the limelight, while theirs skulk in shadows. (pp.246-247)
In his afterword, the British and World Fantasy Award-winning author admits to modelling this and several of the surrounding sequences on the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Final Solution, for war crimes: a tack which is typical of the way Tidhar reconfigures our own horrible history into a darkly fascinating narrative as ghastly as it is fantastical.

In the beginning, in any event, a glimpse of the end: namely the framing narrative by way of which we learn of the events of The Violent Century. In The Hole in the Wall, "a London pub, hidden under the railway arches" (p.8) of the South Bank, a man known only as Oblivion confronts a fellow called Fogg, insisting that they go together to meet the Old Man, the better to clear a couple of things up. "It's just routine," (p.14) one promises the other, but Fogg knows this is not so. He has his secrets, and he will give anything to keep them.

Thus they travel together to the Farm, where Fogg is interrogated at length by the Old Man, who has no other name. He's in charge, as he has ever been, indeed, of the Bureau for Superannuated Affairs, or the Retirement Service, if you will, which long ago promised Fogg and Oblivion — among a number of others we'll meet in a moment — the opportunity "to serve. To be something. Each of you unique. Every boy's secret dream." (p.64) Be that as it may, these dreams, as we'll see, are more like nightmares for most of the changed.

Following the probability wave which made them, or rather remade them, our heroes, such as they are, were taken to the selfsame farm where the framing conversation takes place in the present day, and trained. "It is a place in which the laws of what is real seem suspended, for just a moment. It was beautiful in the daytime, the bright primary colours of blue sky and yellow sun and green grass and white stone. At night it is more of a chiaroscuro, the play of light and shade." (p.71) There, then, under the guidance of a drill instructor and a doctor — none other than Alan Turing — the changed who hail from the UK learn, little by little, to control their abilities.
And so on a lazy sunny afternoon, the Lost Boys and Girls of Never Never Land. Oblivion, Fogg, Spit, Tank, Mr Blur and Mrs Tinkle. Some we know well, some, less well. it is only the nature of things. There are others, too, though many will die in the coming war and other wars and others still are vanished, missing, location unknown: perhaps gone to their own implausible palaces of ice or bat-filled caved, hidden volcanic peaks on jungle-covered South Sea Island, forbidding chrome-and-metal skyscrapers or remote Gothic castles. Or perhaps more prosaically a cottage in Wales. The records are sealed and obscured. (p.77)
This is the calm before the storm, of course. War is coming, and from the 1940s on, it does not seem to stop. Tirelessly, Tidhar takes us through World War II, Vietnam, the Cold War and Afghanistan. But "there was only ever one war to matter, to Oblivion, to the Red Sickle, to all of them. [...] Everything else is a shadow of that war." (p.248)

A shame, then, that so much of The Violent Century is devoted to these episodic digressions. As readers, we gain little insight from said scenes, except to see our secret service set against the superheroes of other countries, from the picture-perfect poster boys who represent the United States to the long-suffering symbols of the USSR and so on. This juxtaposition certainly serves to emphasise our impression of Great Britain's Übermenschen as shady sorts, though it adds little to the either the overall narrative or the larger arcs described by our central characters.

Eventually, we do get back to what matters — the making and breaking of Fogg and Oblivion's friendship by the machinations of the Old Man — but other difficulties persist, first and foremost Tidhar's peculiar prose, moulded in the mode of Jeff VanderMeer's in Finch. The short, sharp sentences; the minimalist exposition; everything up to and including the dialogue is odd. "Words come out haltingly. Like he's forgotten speech." (p.35) It takes a lot of getting used to; progress through the book is so forth slow, leading to problems with pacing that the story's aforementioned sidesteps only exacerbate.

The Violent Century's fractured narrative does, however, have a heart, and when the author sets his sights on this, beauty both meets and beats the beast:
Through a Latin Quarter alive with revellers; Paris, City of Love, City of Lights, transforms into a magical place with one kiss, a Sleeping Beauty awakening, awash with light and love. Night transforms it into a carnival. Paris! Through open doors the smells of cooking waft out. [...] By a bakery, men queue patiently in their suits and their hats for baguette and demi-baguette; nearby they sell jambons, olives, brie and camembert; an old woman sells flowers on the corner of the Boulevard Saint-Michael and Henry buys a red rose and hands it to Klara, who laughs and tosses it in the air. (p.158-159)
The effect of the narrative's darkness and density, then, is the elevation of simple scenes like this, which are rendered with incredible resonance by dint of Tidhar's stylistic decisions. That they are purposeful doesn't make The Violent Century any easier a reading experience, but sometimes... sometimes you just have to work for your wonders.

At the last, Lavie Tidhar's latest is at once a love story, a tragedy, a spy novel, a memoir of a friendship, an exposé of the horrors of war, and a very serious study of the superhero: the origins of the concept as well as its relative relevance. The Violent Century is a difficult text, yes, but one that gives as good as it gets.


The Violent Century
by Lavie Tidhar

UK & US Publication: October 2013, Hodder & Stoughton

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Or get the Kindle edition

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Thursday 14 November 2013

You Tell Me | The Women's Prize for Fantastic Fiction

Just a quick one today, to point you all in the direction of yesterday's edition of the British Genre Fiction Focus, in which I proposed a new award called the Women's Prize for Fantastic Fiction.


I'd have thought the answer would be obvious:
As a community, we’ve cried out again and again for better representation of the “invisible women” working in the male-dominated genre fiction industry... but crying out, however loudly, clearly isn't going to cut the mustard. So let’s do something about it, damn it! Let’s you and I put our heads together and figure out a speculative fiction friendly version of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Kind of like the Not the Booker Prize that The Guardian has. 
A word to the wise: this isn’t going to lead to some seismic shift in the industry. Publishers may or may not change their ways, and whenever they do, if ever they do, they’ll change at their own pace. But if that’s the case, why wait? 
If any woman writing genre fiction in English — whatever her nationality, country of residence, age or subject matter — is eligible, then who and what would our nominees be? The only caveat I'd add is to keep our nominees to books published this year, please.
Do click on through to read the entire article, and leave your nominees in the comments.

Let me start you all off with a fantastic five of my own devising:
  • The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord 
  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson 
  • The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker 
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie 
  • The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough 
So what am I missing? What would your nominees be? You tell me!

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Book Review | Parasite by Mira Grant

A decade in the future, humanity thrives in the absence of sickness and disease.

We owe our good health to a humble parasite: a genetically engineered tapeworm developed by the pioneering SymboGen Corporation. When implanted, the tapeworm protects us from illness, boosts our immune system — even secretes designer drugs. It's been successful beyond the scientists' wildest dreams. Now, years on, almost every human being has a SymboGen tapeworm living within them.

But these parasites are getting restless. They want their own lives... and will do anything to get them.


The other side of Seanan McGuire — author of the ongoing affairs of faerie misfit October Daye — Mira Grant got off to a great start with the Newsflesh books. The first of the three, Feed, was ostensibly about bloggers during the zombie apocalypse, and whilst it won none, it was nominated for any number of awards, including the Hugo. I enjoyed it an awful lot.

Feed, however, felt complete to me, so when Deadline was released the next year, I didn't know quite what to make of it. I read it regardless, and found it... fine. Entertaining enough, but not notably so, not innovative in way its predecessor was, and certainly not necessary. In the end, my nonplussedness was such that I never bothered with Blackout beyond the first few chapters: though it bears saying that the Best Novel nominations kept on coming, for book two of Newsflesh and the conclusion, overall, the series seemed to me to define diminishing returns.

But it's a new dawn, a new day, a new time, and I'm feeling good about the future. Parasite marks the beginning of a brand new duology, and I'm pleased to report that I've got my Mira Grant groove back. Indeed, I've rarely been so keen to read a sequel, in part because Parasite doesn't so much stop as pause at a pivotal point, but also because it's a bloody good book.

So have you heard of the hygiene hypothesis? I hadn't, so let's do as I did and Wiki it quickly. Apparently, it has that "a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents, symbiotic microorganisms [...] and parasites increases susceptibility to allergic diseases by suppressing natural development of the immune system." Which makes a certain amount of sense, yes?

Well, in the near future of Mira Grant's new novel, the bulk of which takes place in San Francisco in 2027, a medical corporation called SymboGen have made their millions on the back of a parasite genetically engineered to stop short these potential problems. It's pretty much a magic pill in practice — the Intestinal Bodyguard™ even secretes designer drugs — and everyone who's anyone has one. That said, Sally Mitchell's is the first to single-handedly save a life... at a cost, of course:
I have to remind myself of that whenever things get too ridiculous: I am alive because of a genetically engineered tapeworm. Not a miracle; God was not involved in my survival. They can call it an "implant" or an "Intestinal Bodyguard," with or without that damn trademark, but the fact remains that we're talking about a tapeworm. A big, ugly, blind, parasitic invertebrate that lives in my small intestine, where it naturally secretes a variety of useful chemicals, including — as it turns out — some that both stimulate brain activity and clean toxic byproducts out of blood. (p.23)
Declared brain-dead after a car crash six years before the book begins, Sally's parasite somehow brought her back — with no memory, however. Indeed, she had to learn how to walk and talk again, and has since developed a significantly different personality than she had before the accident. Now she's got a part-time job and an awesome boyfriend; little by little, she's getting to grips with who she is... she just isn't who she was.
Everyone who knew me before the accident — who knew Sally, I mean, since I don't even feel like I can legitimately claim to be her — says I'm much nicer now. I have a personality, which was a worry for a little while, since they thought there might be brain damage. It's just not the same one. I don't stress about the missing memories anymore. I stress about the thought that someday, if I'm not careful, they might come back. (p.94)
There are, alas, bigger problems on the horizon. An outbreak of what people are calling sleeping sickness has hit the city in recent weeks. Sal and her parasitologist partner Nathan see one individual fall victim to it firsthand while walking in the park one afternoon, and are so surprised when it's not on the news that they begin to suspect shenanigans. Nathan goes fishing for figures and finds out that "worldwide infections were probably somewhere in the vicinity of ten thousand, and climbing — which just made the lack of major media coverage more alarming. Someone, somewhere, was spending a lot to bury this." (p.180)

The more time Sal spends at SymboCorp, where she's required to present herself for regular tests, the more she suspects that they have something to do with this conspiracy. But why? What could they possibly have to hide? And why is one of the company's fallen founders demanding a chat with our protagonist? Excepting the obvious, what's so special about Sal in any event?

That's for me to know and you to find out, I'm afraid, though I wholeheartedly recommend you do so as soon as possible. Parasite isn't perfect by any stretch: it's paced strangely, like a vast first act, incredibly exposition-heavy and, as I said earlier, entirely absent an ending. To top it all off, the big ol' twist which stands in for that latter is telegraphed too transparently for it to have much in the manner of impact. You'll see it coming a mile off, I imagine... yet you'll still need to know what happens next; how Sal handles the ostensible revelation with which Grants bids us a ghastly goodbye.

Largely, that's thanks to a very convincing, not to mention naturalistic cast of characters, the majority of whom are everymen, though there are a few colourful supporting folks too — like Tansy, a miniature monster who reminded me of Borderlands 2's Tiny Tina, and SymboGen's butter-wouldn't-melt head honcho Stephen Banks, who we get to know through the excerpted interviews Grant appends to each chapter of Parasite. All this is underpinned by a sympathetic protagonist who, despite being six years old in a sense, is witty, wily and remarkably well-rounded, such that her first-person perspective is a particular pleasure.

In premise Parasite is less exceptional, but in execution — aside the decision to divide what is clearly a single story down the middle, and the consequences we noted a moment ago — Grant's new book makes for a legitimately gripping ride into early Cronenberg territory, by which I mostly mean Shivers. There's not actually a whole lot of that film's visceral horror herein; the safe money says the worst effects of the so-called sleeping sickness are yet ahead. But the trademark tension that everything's about to go horribly wrong — that the human body is good and ready to rebel — is there from the first, and resoundingly realised before the frustrating break that is Parasite's primary problem.

Otherwise, it's a whole lot of awesome; I enjoyed it more even than Feed, and I'm certainly much more inclined to keep reading the series than I was the novels of the Newsflesh.


by Mira Grant

UK & US Publication: October 2013, Orbit

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