Tuesday 26 February 2013

Video Game Review | Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, dev. Level-5

When I blogged about the release of Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch a couple of weeks ago, I discussed the difficulties I'd had with JRPGs in recent years—a bad start—still, I swore to give the genre at least one more go before abandoning it entirely. A happy ending, then?

Well... let's not jump to conclusions.

I had a fair bit of fun with Ni No Kuni, to be sure. The fifty-odd hours I spent playing it—beating it, indeed—speak to that simple fact. Alas, I'm afraid the very best moments of the experience were behind me five or ten hours in. Things certainly pick up again at the end, but the intervening tedium—especially the text-only story sequences and the endless fetch quests—nearly ruined Ni No Kuni for me. 

So it's fitting, I figure, that the story, such as it is, is all about acceptance. At the outset, the thirteen year old player character, Oliver—who lives a quiet life in Motorville: a very Ghibli village full of 1950s kit cars and an ensemble cast of charming inhabitants—Oliver loses his mother, Alicia, in a tragic accident.

That night, as he cries, a few of Oliver's tears fall on his doll... when suddenly, wonderfully, Drippy comes to life, and introduces himself (in an adorable Welsh accent) as Lord High Lord of the Fairies. He entreats Oliver to accompany him to the world of his birth, to save a once-great kingdom from the clutches of Shadar, the Dark Djinn, not to mention his master, the titular White Witch.

At first, never mind that he's talking to a doll of all things, Oliver says he isn't interested, but when Drippy suggests that the orphaned boy might be able, somehow, to save his mother—because everyone in our world has what's called a "soul mate" in Drippy's, and if Oliver can help Alicia's, then perhaps the fate of her counterpart will altered also—there's no longer any question that he'll help.

So begins an epic adventure in a world of wonders. Here be dragons! As well as cat kings, cow queens, evil genies and a few hundred heartbroken humans, through whom we glimpse Ni No Kuno's gameplay. Your task, as your party travels from place to place, is to help heal these people, and thus this land. You'll do this by finding individuals with an overabundance of one feeling—for instance courage, or ambition—and gifting said surplus to someone in need. Someone with an item you require to progress the story, say.

There's no getting around a number of these fetch quests, but though most of them are optional, Ni No Kuni is (despite endearing appearances) a rather challenging JRPG—with not a few unforgiving fights and a difficulty curve that goes off the deep end in the last act—so the more crap you collect, the better. Unfortunately, by the time I'd filled Oliver's locket for the twentieth time, I wanted nothing more than to sell the wretched thing to a vendor.

Same goes for the familiars you inherit as you adventure around the world. Initially, caring for the loveable little monsters which do the vast majority of your fighting for you adds an addictive Pokemon-esque element to the player's progression through Ni No Kuni, but by the time you're entrenched in the game's flat, protracted middle act, the mechanic has become so much busywork.

The various other systems in play in Level-5's latest are in the long haul markedly more engaging, but they're also par for the course in any decent contemporary JPRG. There's magic, crafting, questing and a whole lot of levelling as well—of you and your familiars. And though they can be unaccountably tough at times, most enemy encounters are as rewarding as they are demanding. Meanwhile, while the world seems kinda sorta small, exploring it is a real treat... especially considering how beautiful it looks: you really do feel Studio Ghibli's influence here, and in the cutesy, colourful character designs too.

Studio Ghibli's involvement can also be seen in Ni No Kuni's story, which sacrifices the melodramatic bombast of most JRPGs for a quieter, softer, sadder narrative. There's the makings of a fine feature-length film herein, but remember: this iteration of the tale takes fifty hours to tell, and drawn out to such an incredible extent, I'm sorry to say it seems insubstantial.

Furthermore, what little story there is is well written, evidently well translated, and well performed whenever an actual voice actor is involved... which is to say rarely, I'm afraid. Most of the story is communicated through text boxes. And there's an almighty lack of actual animation. Studio Ghibli have contributed a few minutes here and there, but most of Ni No Kuni's best moments are rendered in-engine.

Which is fine. Perfectly fine. It's an excellent engine, especially considering its modest origins. All the same, the legacy of Ni No Kuni as a handheld game conceived early in the generation that's now ending shows through in so many ways that those things the developers at least try to do differently—for which effort I applaud Level-5—are at loggerheads with the many traits this JPRG simply apes.

But you know what? I didn't dedicate fifty hours of my life to Ni No Kuni so that I could complain about its failings. Sure, it has a fair few, yet this is the first time I've finished a JRPG in years, so it has at least as many redeeming features, including but not limited to the look, the mood and the music. At the end of the day, I'm happy enough to have had this experience that, on balance, I probably would play a Ni No Kuni 2.

So the story has a happy ending, after all!

Monday 25 February 2013

Quoth the Scotsman | Patrick Ness on the Printed Page

A couple of Quoth the Scotsmans ago, I featured an excerpt from The Explorer by James Smythe—a fine novel, no?—which revolved around the inimitable feeling of reading. I'd like to return to that idea today, if I may, via a passage from The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness... coming soon from Canongate in the UK.

The main character in The Crane Wife is an older gentleman called George, and in his spare time, George is a bit of an artist. But he doesn't paint or draw or sculpt... he cuts. Not himself! No, he makes cuttings from books he finds in bargain bins at charity shops.

That's really all you need to know to follow the following, which is taken from the first act of Ness' phenomenal new novel:
To take his blade and cut into the pages of a book felt like such a taboo, such a transgression against everything he held dear, George still half-expected them to bleed every time he did it. 
He loved physical books with the same avidity other people loved horses or wine or prog rock. He'd never really warmed to ebooks because they seemed to reduce a book to a computer file, and computer files were disposable things, things you never really owned. He had no email from ten years ago but still owned every book he bought that year. Besides, what was more perfect an object than a book? The different rags of paper, smooth or rough under your fingers. the edge of the page pressed into your thumbprint as you turned a new chapter. The way your bookmark—fancy, modest, scrap paper, candy wrapper—moved through the width of it, marking your progress, a little further each time you folded it shut. 
And how they looked on the walls! Lined up according to whatever whim. George's whim was simple—by author, chronological within name—but over the years he'd also done it by size, subject matter, types of binding. All of them there on the shelves, too many, not enough, their stories raging within regardless of a reader.  
He had seen a story once about sand mandalas made by Tibetan Buddhist monks. Unbelievably gorgeous creations, sometimes just a metre across, sometimes big as a room. Different colours of sand, painstakingly blown in symmetrical patterns by monks using straw-like tubes, building layer upon layer, over the course of weeks, until it was finished. At which point, in keeping with Buddhist feelings about materialism, the mandala was destroyed, but George tended to ignore that part. 
What was interesting to him was that the mandala was meant to be—unless he'd vastly misunderstood, which was also possible—a reflection of the internal state of the monk. The monk's inner being, hopefully a peaceful one, laid out in beautiful, fragile form. The soul as a painting. 
The books on George's walls were his sand mandala. When they were all in their place, when he could run his hands over the spines, taking one off the shelf to read or re-read, they were the most serene reflection of his internal state. Or if perhaps not quite his internal state, then at least the internal state he would like to have had. Wheich was maybe all it was for the monks, too, come to think of it. 
And so when he made his very first incision into the pages of a book, when he cut into an old papterback he'd found lying near the rubbish bins behind the shop, it felt like a blundering step into his mandala. A blasphemy, a desecration of the divine. Or, perhaps, a releasing of it. (pp.60-61)
This is a sentiment near and dear to my heart indeed. I flatly refuse to even fold over the pages of a novel to mark my place... never mind taking a knife to one. The horror!

In any case, I'll be reviewing The Crane Wife in full on The Speculative Scotsman shortly, but it should come as no surprise to anyone who's read Patrick Ness in the past that it's simply stunning stuff.

Now, to stroke the spines of a few good books...

Friday 22 February 2013

Book Review | Blood's Pride by Evie Manieri

Rising from their sea-torn ships like vengeful, pale phantoms, the Norlanders laid waste to the Shadar under cover of darkness. They forced the once-peaceful fisher folk into slavery and forged an alliance with their former trading partners, the desert-dwelling Nomas tribe, cutting off any hope of salvation.

Now, two decades after the invasion, a rebellion gathers strength in the dark corridors of the city. A small faction of Shadari have hired the Mongrel, an infamous mercenary, to aid their fledgling uprising—but with her own shadowy ties to the region, she is a frighteningly volatile ally. Has she really come to lead a revolution, or for a more sinister purpose all her own?


Blood's Pride by Evie Manieri starts stronger than any first fantasy in recent memory, with the devastation of an entire civilisation, richly rendered from the perspective of an ill-fated fisherman who lingers too long on the shores of Shadar:
"As the fisherman looked at the magenta sky, he saw a black splotch like a stain on the horizon, a shadow forming over the sea which spread and grew larger and until he saw not shadows but black shapes: great flying creatures. The fisherman recognised them at once as dereshadi, the beasts that carry the souls of evildoers down into the depths of the earth after death. Phantoms swarmed from the bowels of the ships, crawling across the decks and into the landing boats and mounting their flying beasts. 
"The phantoms were giants to the Shadari. Their pale skin was the colour of death, marred by oozing purple sores; grim matted their seafoam-white hair. They had the hollowed cheeks and gangly limbs of the starving, but they held aloft great, gleaming swords. 
"These beings who appeared like walking dead, like living corpses, descended upon the Shadari like the wrath of hell, killing indiscriminately, splashing the town with red Shadari blood. They spoke not one word, made not one sound, as they moved in perfect tandem like a school of flesh-eating fish. Those Shadari who managed to inflict wounds saw their adversaries' blood flow the silver-blue of a shark's fin, but not for long, for the invaders thrust their swords into the fires and seared their wounds closed, and all the while they kept on fighting." (pp.4-5)
This arresting opening does a great deal to endear Manieri's debut to readers—in point of fact, the unadulterated horror of it alone almost enlivens a flat first act—but at a certain stage, one wonders whether Blood's Pride has much more to offer beyond the near extinction event with which it begins... and I dare say the meandering melodrama which follows does little to discourage that doubt.

After the Norlanders' surprise attack, and the subsequent suicide of Shadari's magical ashas en masse, "sleepy Shadar, with its crooked rows and circles of gold-tinged white houses" (p.2) is no more. Almost immediately, the occupying people—colloquially known as Dead Ones because of their translucent skin and absolute aversion to sunlight—press the Shadari survivors into slavery. Some are put to work in the mines, extracting from the earth an element the Norlanders need; others are made to wait on the new, nocturnal nobles and their supporting force.

Coming of age amongst that misbegotten latter lot a full generation later, in a time when rebellion is on the tip of everyone's tongues, Daryan, aka Daimon: a young Shadari who may hold the key to the emancipation of his people. Firstly, he has fostered a friendship with Eofar, a powerful Norlander who could finally tip the balance in favour of the slaves... however Daryan has also gone and fallen for Eofar's little sister.

Isa is a princess of sorts in bitter competition with her wicked sibling over the almighty maguffin Manieri has named her first novel for, but however much the apple of Daryan's eye hungers after the family sword, cold, calculating Frea is first in line to inherit it—and there is no love lost between the two. Blood, one senses, will be spilled before this matter can be concluded. And we all know what comes before a fall.

Meanwhile, deep in the desert surrounding Shadar, the Nomas roam: a fascinating race of traders whose women sail the distant oceans while their men make camp in the sand. Foremost amongst the Nomas, the trader Jachad, who makes a deal with Eofar at the outset, and the Mongrel: a mysterious mercenary who swears to aid the Shadari in their quest to unseat the monstrous Norlanders... albeit at a cost that she refuses to clarify until the battle forthcoming is ultimately won.

If all of the above seems like a lot to handle, that's because it is: getting to grips with Manieri's vast cast of characters is a challenging task, made doubly difficult by some frankly forgettable naming conventions and a dire lack of differentiation at the outset of the text. Later on, a few start to stand out from the crowd—Isa's adversarial relationship with her sister is a specific saving grace—and by the end of Blood's Pride, most have developed to a certain extent.

Most... but not all. Notably, though the Mongrel plays a pivotal role in the plot—indeed, this debut is at its best when she's about—we hear from her so rarely that her enigmatic nature becomes an annoyance rather than a draw.

On the whole, then, I found Manieri's characterisation rather lacking, and at times the array of peripheral perspectives the author opts to offer drove me to distraction.

And this isn't the only impediment to a real appreciation of Blood's Pride, considering that the pace proves problematic, and the plot, too, is confused. But never mind, for the moment, the politics; the unending intrigue; the accumulation of little white lies and deep, dark deceits. And don't be terribly troubled by the talking heads determined to debate all and sundry subjects at cross purposes. Let's put these aspects of the entire behind us, because in truth they all improve over the course of Manieri's first fantasy.

Complexity, however, is one thing—necessary, even, in a series such as The Shattered Kingdoms—but when every single plot thread is subject to frequent upheaval, the ground beneath one's feet begins to feel fleeting. Thus, there will be those who find traversing this slippery slope treacherous, and with no notion of what lies beyond it, why bother?

But bring the right equipment—I want to call it the Ice Pick of +1 Perseverance—and you'll find solid footing soon, because Blood's Pride gets better in almost every respect after a disappointing first third. Characters solidify before our eyes, whilst the story finally hits its stride... and even at its least appealing, the quasi-Medieval Mediterranean setting of Blood's Pride struck me as superb. Indeed, Manieri's worldbuilding is so very well implemented that I would gladly spend a little longer in the Shattered Kingdoms, despite this debut's other issues.

Beyond a powerful prologue, I'm sorry to say Blood's Pride does not put its best foot forward. I only wish Evie Manieri had gotten to the characters that matter and the more interesting plot points significantly quicker that she does, because once the by-the-numbers introductions are done, hers proves a promising and distinctive debut. Simultaneously sweeping and small-scale, and equal parts tragic romance and slow-burn insurgency, Blood's Pride lacks that vital spark for long enough that I can't recommend it wholeheartedly... all the same, bring on Fortune's Blight!


Blood's Pride
by Evie Manieri

UK Publication: September 2012, Jo Fletcher Books
US Publication: February 2013, Tor

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Recommended and Related Reading

Thursday 21 February 2013

But I Digress | Super Kindle 64

Who would have thunk it?

Well, everyone, obviously. Its existence was the worst kept secret in the gaming industry since... actually, I'm struggling to come up with an apposite example. This isn't an industry known for its grace or patience, after all; like a squabble in the schoolyard, if there's something going on, potential spectators are alerted as if by osmosis, or some telepathic process. Hence all the NDAs. And the elaborately coordinated PR campaigns.

But that's not what I want to talk about today. Rather than the announcement of the PS4 itself—which, for what it's worth, I'll buy if or else when the price is right—I want to use the immediate reaction to the would-be huge news as a jumping off point for discussion. Because the sentiment I heard, overwhelmingly, before, during and after Sony's shindig, was... so what?

Let me be clear: I disagree. I believe there's a real need for updated hardware. Try playing Far Cry 3 on a modern PC and you'll see what I mean. It's hard to go back, so I'm all for forward. But let's not kid around: there has never been a less significant jump between one generation and the next, nor a longer period between revisions than this one. What are we to understand from that if not the fact that the console cycle, as we know it, is coming to a close?

If you're wondering what all this could have to do with the publishing industry, simply consider the e-book reader, or the tablet that serves as such. Kindles and iPads are platforms built on technology too. And each time their hardware is revised, these devices grow ever closer to the endpoint the PS4 arguably represents. 

To make matters worse, there are new e-book readers every year—at least—so we're approaching the zenith of technology far quicker than the gaming industry did.

There will come a time, I put to you, when there will be no point in upgrading your Kindle or iPad. When our e-book readers will do everything we want them to do, and more, as well as we might like, and better. Beyond that, the only improvements will be superficial.

And I want to know what that device looks like. What's the ultimate feature set for e-book readers? And how very different could reading e-books possibly be from the experience we can have today?

Even then, what could possibly be better than the tactile pleasure of a physical edition, or the satisfaction of filing it away in your library?

Give me a foldable, flexible OLED screen that can read books to me out loud, with some sort of dynamic Last Time On the thing I've been reading functionality—for when I forget what's going on—and subscription-based access to a collaborative library of literature that isn't fragmented or just fucked in the way certain services are today. Maybe then I'll be moved to buy your device.

I don't ask for a lot, do I? :)

Monday 18 February 2013

Book Review | The Emperor of All Things by Paul Witcover

Buy this book from
Amazon.co.uk / The Book Depository

Or get the Kindle Edition

England is embroiled in a globe-spanning conflict that stretches from her North American colonies to Europe and beyond. Across the Channel, the French prepare for an invasion - an invasion rumored to be led by none other than Bonnie Prince Charlie. It seems the map of Europe is about to be redrawn. Yet behind these dramatic scenes, another war is raging - a war that will determine not just the fate of nations but of humanity itself...

Daniel Quare is a journeyman in an ancient guild, The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers. He is also a Regulator, part of an elite network within the guild devoted to searching out and claiming for England's exclusive use any horological innovation that could give them an upperhand, whether in business or in war.

Just such a mission has brought Quare to the London townhouse of eccentric collector, Lord Wichcote. He seeks a pocket watch rumoured to possess seemingly impossible properties that are more to do with magic than with any science familiar to Quare or to his superiors. And the strange timepiece has attracted the attention of others as well: the mysterious masked thief known only as Grimalkin, and a deadly French spy who stop at nothing to bring the prize back to his masters.

Soon Quare finds himself on a dangerous trail of intrigue and murder that leads far from the world he knows into an otherwhere of dragons and demigods, in which nothing is as it seems... least of all time.


It is the year 1758, and England and her allies are at war with France and its confederates in a conflict that could go either way at any moment, so when evidence emerges of a weapon that could affect the course of this most mortal combat, patriots on either side of the divide are enlisted to track the device down, and claim it in the name of their nations.

But the hunter, for so it is known, is no ordinary weapon: it is a clock, of a sort - an impossible watch with dragon hands which measure something utterly other than the hour - and it will be won, if it will be won at all, by no ordinary agent. Enter Daniel Quare, recently installed regulator for a certain secret society:
"By royal decree, the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers was the sole arbiter of the techniques and tools that horologists throughout Britain, whether members of the guild or amateurs, were permitted to employ in the manufacture of timepieces. All journeymen of the Worshipful Company had the duty of protecting its patents and interests. Any timepiece that utilized an already forbidden technology was destroyed, its maker reported to the local authorities, while those clocks evidencing new technologies and methods were confiscated and sent to London for study. The prosperity and safety of the nation depended upon superiority in business as well as in battle, and nothing was a surer guarantee of dominance in both realms than the ability to measure the passage of time more accurately than one's adversaries. Whether coordinating the shipment and delivery of merchandise over land and sea or troop movements upon a battlefield, the advantage belonged to the side with the best timepieces." (p.23)
To that end, then, our man is charged with the recovery of a unique timepiece belonging to one Lord Wichcote - an incidental character who becomes markedly more prominent as Paul Witcover's novel goes on - and indeed, he succeeds... if only because Daniel arrives at the target's townhouse in the immediate aftermath of a pitched battle between the Lord and a little-seen legend, "the mysterious Grimalkin — the grey shadow whose identity is known to no man. [Who may be] no man at all, but a devil sworn to the service of Lucifer." (p.7)

Whether by accident or some more malign design, Daniel manages to disarm Grimalkin after the infamous thief of thieves has herself acquired the hunter. Then, as surprised by his success as anyone else, the retiring regulator returns to the Worshipful Company's base of operations, the better to investigate his perplexing prize alongside his master, a humpbacked old man called Magnus, or Mephistopheles by his many enemies.

Daniel and Magnus have hardly begun to understand the strange technologies powering this awesome watch when, all of a sudden, the day is done. The pair arrange to resume their studies the following morning, but the meeting is not to be. Later that night, you see, Daniel is stabbed through the heart by a French spy... yet it is Magnus, rather than The Emperor of All Things' reluctant hero, who dies.

Here we hit upon one of the first of the manifold mysteries hidden within this nested doll of a novel. Nothing is ever quite what you think in The Emperor of All Things - though you'll have an inkling, just to keep things interesting - and Paul Witcover doubles down on that aspect of his meandering narrative in its surprising middle section, which does not feature Daniel at all.

It does, on the other hand, have dragons, so there's that. And in the erstwhile it serves to introduce readers to a world - our world - where "all the old myths and legends were true. A world that floated, like a bubble of time, on a vast sea of unbeing: the Otherwhere. And in which time itself was... what? A disease? A drug? An imperfection introduced into a perfect creation, a flaw in that glittering jewel, the original original sin?" (p.348)

This is The Emperor of All Things at is most fantastical by far, yet even in this section there is room for rumination. Room for extended metaphysical digressions, chapter-long dialogues about philosophy, screeds of science, history and religion — or so the author supposes. Would that Witcover had reined in his rambling! Would, while we're at it, that he had made Daniel a more dynamic character. As it stands, the story seems always on the back foot, with something else to explain or detail or for its cast to converse about endlessly, and its main narrator has distressingly little agency at every stage of the tale... though late in the last act, Witcover does at least make a plot point of Daniel's indecisiveness:
"He was in over his head. That much was plain. Had been for some time now. But this was a whole different order of drowning. He was used to the idea that he could not trust anyone else. But now it seemed he could no longer trust himself." (p.356)
Nor, given his dithering disposition, can readers truly trust him, therefore there will be those who have trouble engaging in any meaningful way with The Emperor of All Things' tiresome protagonist. Relative to Daniel, supporting characters such as Lord Wichcote, Master Magnus and Grimalkin appear unduly alluring, though the narrative marginalises all three to differing degrees.

Thus, The Emperor of All Things is master of almost none, but excepting the exact examples aforementioned, it's very good at nearly everything else it attempts. Witcover's prose is playful, yet persuasive; even the novel's more self-serious scenes are enlivened by a winning sense of whimsy; and unconstrained by the conventions of any one genre, it reinvents itself with refreshing regularity, seguing  seamlessly from wonder, whimsy and conspiracy to intrigue, espionage and action. And that's just for starters.

I would not say that The Emperor of All Things is undone by its monolithic ambitions, but perhaps it is momentarily overmatched. There can be no question that Witcover's would have been a better book had he left a few of its multifarious flourishes for the sequel he's working on currently, and focused more closely on developing those that remained. Despite this, though, The Emperor of All Things makes for a thorough, yet thrilling beginning to a series in which anything you can imagine could and should come true.


The Emperor of All Things
by Paul Witcover

UK Publication: February 2013, Bantam Press

Buy this book from
Amazon.co.uk / The Book Depository

Or get the Kindle Edition

Recommended and Related Reading

Friday 15 February 2013

Coming Attractions | The Abominable Mr. Simmons

Yesterday, Deadline reported that one of my favourite books of recent years is being turned into a TV series by AMC. The Terror is the incredible tale of two ships which were lost in the late 1840s whilst searching for a once-impassable route through the Arctic: the legendary Northwest Passage.

In Dan Simmons' awesome novel, the crew become frozen into the ice for a period of years: The Terror is the story of their survival in these extreme conditions, with limited supplies, fraying tempers, and—here's where it gets particularly interesting—an impossible monster with an appetite for people.

I've always had a soft spot for survival narratives. Also the Arctic. And boy, I do like me my monsters! Indeed, reading The Terror ticked all these boxes before I even realised they existed. So the news that AMC mean to make a TV series out of Simmons' alt-historical story leaves me with... mixed feelings. I'm sure it could be good. Hell, it could be really, really good. On the other hand, the way AMC have "dealt" with The Walking Dead, despite its surprising success, is dismaying.

(Side note: io9's most constructive comment about the announcement was that The Terror isn't The Thing. Well said, sirs! Or... wait. No. I take it back.)

Anyway, though Simmons has had the odd hit since The TerrorDrood was pretty good—by and large he's fallen out of favour again, so I wanted to draw your attention to his next novel, which I only discovered today. It's called The Abominable, and it sounds enticingly like a return to the territory of The Terror
In June 1924, famous British climber George Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine disappeared on the North East Ridge of Mount Everest. Most of the subsequent publicity did not mention that two other climbers were missing: the future Lord Wessex and an unnamed German support climber. 
A year later, climber, poet and war hero Richard David Deacon sees a way he and his friends can reach the heights of Mount Everest. He tells Lady Wessex that they will look for her son if she bankrolls the operation. Now the danger Deacon and his group face is not only from the treacherous conditions; they are also warned of the mythical 'man bear' demons of the mountain - which they dismiss until they hear roars so loud they drown out the 100 mile-per-hour wind that is tearing their canvas tent to shreds around them...
Amazon, however, seem to be doing their very best to garble the facts about the book. They're saying The Abominable will be out this April in the UK, weighing in at 432 pages, yet a quick trawl of the forums Simmons himself visits suggests we should be expecting another behemoth, at approximately 800 pages—and in October rather than a mere six weeks from Sunday.

Let me make no bones about it: whenever it's released, and however long it is, I can't wait to read The Abominable.

But after the ghastly Flashback, is anyone else willing to give Dan Simmons another chance?

Wednesday 13 February 2013

The Scotsman Abroad | Best of British

I promise not to keep banging on about this, but lest any of you conclude I blog more rarely these days than I did—when nothing could be further from the truth—let me point you once again in the direction of the two columns I contribute to Tor.com.

To begin with, the latest instalment of the British Genre Fiction Focus was unleashed earlier this afternoon. This week's news round-up begins with a discussion of the perfect storm ruining high street retail in the UK, vis-a-vis the new world order under which Waterstones now operates, and ends with... well. A bit of a silly story.

Choose your own erotic adventure, anyone? :D

Then, in the second section, there are a huge number of new releases to look forward to, not least new novels from Adrian Tchaikovsky, Jim Crace and Christopher Brookmyre—a Scotsman after my own heart!

You can read the rest of this week's edition of the BGFF here.

Meanwhile, Brit Mandelo and I have been swapping the Short Fiction Spotlight back and forth, and yesterday it was my turn to direct it again. Click through for my thoughts of the British Science Fiction Association's Best Short Shortlist, including much discussion of a pair of fantastic candidates: "Three Moments of an Explosion" by China Mieville and "Adrift on the Sea of Rains" by Ian Sales.

I'll be concluding the review in two weeks. Beyond that, though? I have a few thoughts about what authors to subject to the Spotlight, sure... but I'm open to ideas.

So: which short stories would you like to see featured in the Short Fiction Spotlight going forward?

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Book Review | Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa

A woman goes into a bakery to buy a strawberry cream tart. The place is immaculate but there is no one serving so she waits. Another customer comes in. The woman tells the new arrival that she is buying her son a treat for his birthday. Every year she buys him his favourite cake; even though he died in an accident when he was six years old.

From this beginning Yoko Ogawa weaves a dark and beautiful narrative that pulls together a seemingly disconnected cast of characters. In the tradition of classical Japanese poetic collections, the stories in Revenge are linked through recurring images and motifs, as each story follows on from the one before while simultaneously introducing new characters and themes. Filled with breathtaking images, Ogawa provides us with a slice of life that is resplendent in its chaos, enthralling in its passion and chilling in its cruelty.


Consume them independently at your own peril, but taken together, the eleven dark tales contained in Revenge by Yoko Ogawa make for a single, delectable dish. One best served cold, of course.

Behold the beauty of the quote below. Know, though, that there's something very wrong with this picture:
"It was a beautiful Sunday. The sky was a cloudless dome of sunlight. Out on the square, leaves fluttered in a gentle breeze along the pavement. Everything seemed to glimmer with a faint luminescence: the roof of the ice-cream stand, the faucet on the drinking fountain, the eyes of a stray cat, even the base of the clock tower covered with pigeon droppings. 
"Families and tourists strolled through the square, enjoying the weekend. Squeaky sounds could be heard from a man off in the corner, who was twisting balloon animals. A circle of children watched him, entranced. Nearby, a woman sat on a bench knitting. Somewhere a horn sounded. A flock of pigeons burst into the air, and startled a baby who began to cry. The mother hurried over to gather the child in her arms. 
You could gaze at this perfect picture all day—an afternoon bathed in light and comfort—and perhaps never notice a single detail out of place, or missing." (pp.1-2)
So begins Stephen Snyder's sublime translation of Yoko Ogawa's 1998 short story collection, originally published in Japan as Kamoku na shigai, Midara na tomurai, and "Afternoon at the Bakery" is an ideal opener. It isn't about much at all, if the truth be told—an anonymous woman reminiscing about her son whilst waiting in a bakery to buy the strawberry shortcake she always orders on the anniversary of his untimely and doubly discomfiting death—yet this exacting introduction to the motifs and ideas which recur throughout Revenge does a great deal to prime readers for the unsettling efforts ahead.

"Fruit Juice" follows. It chronicles the fleeting first meeting of a distant father and daughter from a characteristically uncertain external perspective. Out of the blue—they're certainly not friends or anything—the daughter invites our narrator, whom Ogawa once more disdains to name, to accompany her to a French restaurant for this excruciating reunion. Afterwards, they hang out near an abandoned post office inexplicably stuffed full of fruit. Kiwis, even!

This is the first of several symbolic threads which run the length of Revenge, though the story it arises in is again fairly forgettable in itself. However the next narrative—namely "Old Mrs. J"—is effective even absent the chilling context of the stories surrounding it. Old Mrs. J is the landlady of a quiet apartment surrounded by gorgeous orchards, and it should come a little surprise to you that the author only allows us to glimpse her from a distance.

(That is to say the author of "Old Mrs. J," not the author who moves into this beautiful building—recommended to her, incidentally, by the editor of an arts and crafts magazine who dies at the outset of the subsequent story—and observes her attending her kiwis.)

Old Mrs. J also grows carrots, if you can credit it: carrots which to a one take the shape of "amputated [human] hands with malignant tumors, dangling in front of us, still warm from the earth." (p.36) Soon enough a reporter is dispatched to the apartment to write an article about these vile vegetables, and in the aftermath of its publication an appropriately depraved discovery is made, the repercussions of which ripple through the remainder of Revenge.

Oh, and the photo accompanying the aforementioned reporter's story proves pivotal to the narrator of a later tale... a narrator who may have appeared in a deceptively incidental role in Revenge already.

As one character wisely advises, "Even if something seems pointless at the time, you mustn't take it lightly. You'll see how useful it is later on. Nothing you study will ever turn out to be useless. That's the way the world is." (p.108)

To wit, almost everything is connected in this incredible collection, to the point that those things which are not seem far stranger for their isolation. As indicated, occasional people reappear, seemingly at random, yet rarely compared to the images the author summons up in one narrative after another. Some of said are sumptuous, others appear absurd; all are in service of the same resounding result, for Ogawa's tendency to delight is adequately matched by her impulse to disgust. See for example the stories at the dark heart of this awesome volume: "Sewing for the Heart" and "Welcome to the Museum of Torture."

Indeed, in a sense, reading Revenge is not dissimilar to torture of a sort.
"For a torture to be effective, the pain has to be spread out; it has to come at regular intervals, with no end in sight. The water falls, drop after drop after drop, like the second hand of a watch, carving up time. The shock of each individual drop is insignificant, but the sensation is impossible to ignore. At first, one might manage to think about other things, but after five hours, after ten hours, it becomes unendurable. The repeated stimulation excites the nerves to a point where they literally explode, and every sensation in the body is absorbed into that one spot on the forehead—indeed, you come to feel that you are nothing but a forehead, into which a fine needle is being forced millimeter by millimeter. You can't sleep or even speak, hypnotized by a suffering that is greater than any mere pain. In general, the victim goes mad before a day has passed." (pp.93-94)
This device describes the overall impact of Revenge: a sterling ensemble of short stories about darkness, death and depression, by way of love, loss and, at the last, blinding new life. As yet another of Ogawa's arrayed narrators notes, "The prose was unremarkable, as were the plot and characters, but there was an icy undercurrent running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again." (p.148) You should, too.

Though only a few of the stories collected in Revenge impress as individual entities, they gain far greater power and persuasiveness when read together, and recollected afterwards as a single, shocking thing.

It's taken 15 years for the first of Yoko Ogawa's uncanny collections to be rendered into exquisite English, and obviously this is no overnight process. I wouldn't want to lose the lens of Stephen Snyder, either. Be that as it may, I hope you'll join me in wishing that we see subsequent efforts from the rising international star... somewhat sooner.


Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales
by Yoko Ogawa

UK Publication: January 2013, Harvill Secker
US Publication: January 2013, Picador

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Monday 11 February 2013

You Tell Me | The Scotsman in the High Castle

In case you hadn't heard, this morning brought news of an adaptation of a classic genre novel. Via Variety:
Syfy is adapting Philip K. Dick's book The Man in the High Castle into a four-part miniseries, with Ridley Scott attached to exec produce. 
Dick's novel, set in 1962, depicts a world where Nazi Germany and Japan were the victors in WWII and occupy the U.S. 
The X-Files vet Frank Spotnitz will serve as primary scribe and as exec producer. Scott will exec produce through his shingle Scott Free Prods., alongside Headline Pictures, Electric Shepherd Prods. and FremantleMedia Intl., which will also distribute the mini globally.
"Alternate history stories are part of an amazing and intricate genre of sci-fi," said Mark Stern, president of original content at Syfy and co-head of original content at Universal Cable Prods. "When done well, there's nothing better; and I can't think of better creative talent to bring Philip K. Dick's fascinating alternate-history thriller to life than Ridley Scott and Frank Spotnitz."
Well, I can.

Be that as it may, I'll probably watch Syfy's adaptation anyway. But the announcement puts me in a particular position: though I've had a copy on my shelves for many years indeed—in large part because I bought all the original SF Masterworks I could—I haven't read The Man in the High Castle, and with this miniseries on the near to far horizon, it's become a case of now or never.

Why is that?

As I've touched on here on The Speculative Scotsman, I value surprise very highly. So highly that, if I'm honest, whether Syfy's series is awful or awesome, I am entirely unlikely to invest precious time in a tale I've already been told.

Long story short, should I read The Man in the High Castle before Syfy's adaptation airs? Or should I make like nothing's changed?

Before you offer your opinions one way or the other, know that the only the only Philip K. Dick I can recall reading is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I was young at the time—perhaps too young—and I didn't entirely dig it; I only persisted because of my undying adoration of Blade Runner.

But maybe the time has come to re-evaluate my stance. Maybe I should read this book before Syfy's miniseries spoils the experience for me.

You tell me!

Friday 8 February 2013

Kickstart My Heart | A Year of Daydreams & A River of Stars

I've been sceptical of this Kickstarter lark since the beginning, but for the right reasons, I'll gladly set aside my cynicism.

For instance, photographer Lauren Zurchin has announced a particularly interesting project. She's going to be "photographing fourteen of the world's most famous fantasy authors in custom hand-crafted costumes, and putting the photos together into a fantasy calendar for charity. The authors involved are Brandon Sanderson, Brandon Mull, Christopher Paolini, Gregory Maguire, Tad Williams, Patrick Rothfuss, Cassandra Clare, Holly Black, Lauren Kate, Lauren Oliver, Maggie Stiefvater, Gail Carriger, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff."

"This project is huge, and with the support of these authors I've taken to Kickstarter to raise the bare-minimum funds needed to make this project a reality. Every author involved in the project has offered limited edition exclusive items up for grabs—prizes that are only offered this one time and never again. Kickstarter contributors can find limited edition prints of their fantasy calendar photo (signed), wall posters (signed), "personalized packs" (containing prints, autographed calendar, and more—personalized and signed by the author), and calendars signed by all fourteen of the project's participants. There are several high-end prizes up for grabs, including Skype chats with a few of the participating authors."

Sounds super—not least because I could do with a nice new calendar myself. Honestly, anything would be preferable to another eleven months of dogs on holiday, but Lauren's Year of Daydreams looks independently lovely. Plus, she won't simply be pocketing the proceeds: the profits will be shared between First Book and Patrick Rothfuss' wonderful Worldbuilders project.

Hang on.

Here's a video explaining the whole thing:

Go on and pledge, then!

Meanwhile, if you've been anticipating River of Stars half as much as I have, this auction of a signed ARC must be music to your ears. Guy Gavriel Kay has blogged about what he'll be doing with the funds raised by the sale here.

If I didn't already have a review copy of Kay's huge new book, I'd put in a bid myself.

Given the beneficiary, perhaps I still will...

Wednesday 6 February 2013

But I Digress | Niall no Kuni

It's hard to say whether or not the Japanese RPG has any place in the gaming industry today. 

In the nineties they were the in thing, and in the naughties they got bigger, better-looking, and somewhat more modern—albeit alongside every other genre that joined the HD generation. Yet despite massive investment and a fever pitch of interest, the JRPG simply couldn't keep up with the major new players in gaming, to the point that within weeks of its release, the last Final Fantasy vanished with nary a trace it had ever even existed. And let face it: there is no bigger name in the game than Final Fantasy.

Never one to learn its lesson, however, Square Enix is set to unleash a second sequel to Final Fantasy XIII this year. And who knows? Maybe the third time's the charm. But I doubt it. And speaking personally, I could care less. Not once but twice I got around 20 hours into Lightning's life, only to lose interest lest I lost the will to live entirely.

Granted, my interest in the genre had been flagging beforehand. And it's continued to do so since: the only JRPG I played in 2012 was Tales of Graces f, and again, I got about 20 hours in, looked at a FAQ to see how much more game I still had to play... and admitted defeat. I watched the end of the affair on YouTube. And I don't feel like I lost out on anything.

Be that as it may, I'm not quite ready to give up the ghost on the entire genre. I have at least one more attempt in me before I sign off once and for all: namely Ni no Kuni.

I've been holding out hope for this rare collaboration between Level 5 and Studio Ghibli (of Spirited Away fame—the very same!) since it was announced in 2008, and the copy I pre-ordered way back when finally arrived on Saturday. Despite having a hundred other things to do, I fed it to my PS3 immediately.

I'm 10 hours in already, and over the moon that I can say the time has flown by so far. So maybe Ni no Kuni is the game which makes the genre meaningful to me again. Or perhaps 10 hours from now I'll hit a wall that leaves me with no other option than to grind my life away, or give up on the JRPG after all. 

I so hope it doesn't come to that. I feel like I'd be killing a large part of the kid I once was, and I believe it's important to stay in touch—to a certain extent—with the things we loved when we were young.

I'll report back on my progress through Ni no Kuni even if I don't make much more. Why, if I finish the thing, and there's interest, I might even review it!

But for the moment, the floor is yours, folks. Do you think the JRPG has a place in the gaming landscape of today, or it is as long in the tooth as I suggested earlier? Does the prospect of Lightning's return in Final Fantasy XII-3 excite anyone at all?

And if any of you have been playing Ni no Kuni, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it. Do tell, too, if for whatever reason you've opted not to.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Book Review | Three Days to Never by Tim Powers

When Albert Einstein told Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 that the atomic bomb was possible, he did not tell the president about another discovery he had made, something so extreme and horrific it remained a secret... until now. This extraordinary new novel from one of the most brilliant talents in contemporary fiction is a stand-out literary thriller in which one man stumbles upon the discovery Einstein himself tried to keep hidden.

When twelve-year-old Daphne Marrity takes a videotape labeled Pee-wee's Big Adventure from her grandmother's house, neither she nor her college-professor father, Frank Marrity, has any idea that the theft has drawn the attention of both the Israeli Secret Service and an ancient European cabal of occultists — or that within hours they'll be visited by her long-lost grandfather, who is also desperate to get that tape. And when Daphne's teddy bear is stolen, a blind assassin nearly kills Frank, and a phantom begins to speak to her from a switched-off television set, Daphne and her father find themselves caught in the middle of a murderous power struggle that originated long ago in Israel and Germany but now crashes through Los Angeles and out to the Mojave Desert.

To survive, they must quickly learn the rules of a dangerous magical chess game and use all their cleverness and courage - as well as their love and loyalty to each other - to escape a fate more profound than death.


Tim Powers is known for a number of notable genre novels, including the Locus and World Fantasy Award-winning Last CallThe Stress of Her Regard and its recent sequel, Hide Me Among the Graves, and On Stranger Tides, the so-called "inspiration" for the latest Pirates of the Caribbean affair. For all these, though, it's fair to say The Anubis Gates remains his most famous. Despite the critical and commercial success of the books above and beyond, nothing the acclaimed American author has written in the nearly 40 years of his career has caught on quite like that classic time travel narrative, so to see Powers return to this well-trodden trope is at once predictable and auspicious.

Three Days to Never isn't a new novel, strictly speaking - it was published in the United States in 2006 - nevertheless, it's new to me, as it will be to other readers who've had to wait for its belated British release this week. But better late than never, certainly — and that goes for those of you who missed it when it was new, too.

Considering the complexities of its exhilarating endgame, the beginning of Three Days to Never is suspiciously simple. I wouldn't go so far as to suggest the story starts slowly, but it does take Powers an age to explain the narrative's core conceit, which has our central characters inherit an improvised time machine following the puzzling passing of a batty granny with secret ties, it transpires, to both Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein.

That it takes the entire first act for Frank and Daphne Marrity to figure out even this little is an issue, admittedly, but not as big a one as it might have been, thanks in large part to Powers' protagonists: a deeply endearing father and daughter double-act who keep Three Days to Never interesting during the opening doldrums, and ground the narrative's especially incredible aspects afterwards. To be sure, they're a precocious pair, yet Frank and Daphne must be amongst the most charming characters the author has created to date.

To balance out the great equation, Powers provides two superficially fascinating antagonists, each of whom represents an outside interest in Frank and Daphne's magical swastika.

Wait, had I not mentioned the magical swastika?

Well... now you know.

Oren Lepidopt, however, knows more. In fact, after a close encounter with a holy wall in Jordan, Lepidopt knows certain things with absolute, unearthly certainty: he knows, for instance, that he'll never again hear the name John Wayne. He knows he'll never eat another tuna sandwich, or swim in the sea, or pet a cat, or see a film in the cinema. About the only thing he isn't sure of is how to safely extract the aforementioned artefact.

And the Mossad aren't the only organisation with designs on Grammar's golden swastika. There's also the Vespers:
"A secret survival of the true Albigenses, the twelfth-century natural philosophers Languedoc whose discoveries in the areas of time and so-called reincarnation had so alarmed the Catholic church that Pope Innocent III had ordered the entire group to be wiped out [thinking they] had rediscovered the real Holy Grail." (pp.76-77)
Blind since a nasty accident, yet still able to see through the eyes of anyone within a particular radius around her, Charlotte Sinclair epitomises the occult orientation of this secret society — that is as opposed to the Mossad's more spiritual principles. Haunted, if not necessarily daunted by the terrible things she's done, Charlotte hopes to travel back in time to undo all the wretchedness she's wrought... but her bosses have different ideas.

Charlotte and Lepidopt are fantastic characters in concept, and they do come into their own eventually, but  again, it takes too long, meanwhile the many others members of their respective groups feel faceless; excuses to infodump outside of the central thread, at best. Unfortunately this is not uncommon in Three Days to Never: Powers frequently interrupts the momentum of Frank and Daphne's comparatively fast-paced chapters to explain, in dizzying detail, what just happened — in addition to why and how and, tellingly, when.

So it starts uncertainly, and suffers from some dreadful talking heads, but take heart, genre fiction fans, because said sequences are the exception rather than the rule, and the whole thing finishes with a phenomenal flourish. Between these extremes, Three Days to Never is as thrilling as anything Tim Powers has written. There's espionage, obviously, and a neat take on time travel, but winningly, the tale also takes in physics and history, philosophy and literature.

Not all of these ideas succeed, indeed; together, however, the few which do trump the entire contents of three normal novels. Even if Three Days to Never can't quite exceed the high bar set by the author's most memorable other efforts - sadly, this isn't the second coming of The Anubis Gates - it is still a solid slab of smart, supernatural sci-fi, well worth looking into whether it's new to you or not.


Three Days to Never
by Tim Power

UK Publication: January 2013, Corvus
US Publication: November 2007, Harper

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Friday 1 February 2013

Book Review | The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

A proud and reserved alien society finds its homeland destroyed in an unprovoked act of aggression, and the survivors have no choice but to reach out to the indigenous humanoids of their adopted world, to whom they are distantly related. They wish to preserve their cherished way of life but come to discover that in order to preserve their culture, they may have to change it forever.

Now a man and a woman from these two clashing societies must work together to save this vanishing race — and end up uncovering ancient mysteries with far-reaching ramifications. As their mission hangs in the balance, this unlikely team - one cool and cerebral, the other fiery and impulsive - just may find in each other their own destinies... and a force that transcends all.


As a reader, and a reviewer, I like to think that I practice reasonably equal opportunities.

I suppose there are some sub-genres I struggle with, and a select few I have a particular passion for, but by and large, I could care less about categories. The tropes of a certain type of text mean little to me. I wouldn't even say story is my focus. How a story's told, on the other hand—and the way in which those tropes are brought forth? Makes all the damn difference.

But perhaps I should explain what this preamble has to do with Karen Lord's new novel.

Well, take widescreen, galaxy-spanning science fiction. I'm as excited by spectacle as the next person, and assuming they're astutely put, I can absolutely get behind big ideas to boot. But it's the little things that I really, truly love, and The Best of All Possible Worlds has an abundance of all of the above. Equal parts tragedy and romance, psychic fantasy and soulful SF, it's like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms meets a disarmingly charming 2312, as written by someone with a still more impressive sense of perspective.

A bilingual biotechnician by training, Grace Delarua is a single civil servant under the auspices of Central Government on Cygnus Beta, a colony known across the cosmos as "a galactic hinterland for pioneers and refugees." (p.7) Of late, she's become something of a liason to the secretive Sadiri people, or rather the few who survived the unprovoked attack on their planet: an act of terrible genocide in no uncertain terms, and in recent memory yet.

A year on from the horror on their homeworld, however, change is in the air:
"A lot of people act like misfortune is contagious. They don't want to be exposed to it for too long. They'll take you in and make all the right gestures and noises, but when the months wear on and you're still in their house or their town or their world, the welcome starts to wear a bit thin." (p.8)
To make matters worse for the Sadiri who have settled on Cygnus Beta, most of those remaining are male, and they are all too aware that unless something is done about this embarrassing imbalance, their race faces imminent extinction.