Monday 30 September 2013

Book Review | Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that gave ordinary men and women extraordinary powers. The awed public started calling them Epics. But Epics are no friend of man. With incredible gifts came the desire to rule. And to rule man you must crush his wills.

Nobody fights the Epics... nobody but the Reckoners. A shadowy group of ordinary humans, they spend their lives studying Epics, finding their weaknesses, and then assassinating them.

And David wants in. He wants Steelheart — the Epic who is said to be invincible. The Epic who killed David's father. For years, like the Reckoners, David's been studying, and planning — and he has something they need. Not an object, but an experience.

He's seen Steelheart bleed. And he wants revenge.


"It's always dark in Newcago," (p.21) declares David Charleston, a decade on from the death of his fearless father at the hands of Steelheart. The darkness shrouding the city has been gathering since that fateful day, as if to help keep some deep secret... but it's always darkest before the dawn, isn't that what they say?

As well they may. But the dawn of what? Why hope, of course.

For the moment, though, there's none. Humanity has been almost completely defeated, and the night's spiteful cycle is constant reminder of our fall from prominence.
The only thing you can see up there is Calamity, which looks kind of like a bright red star or comet. Calamity began to shine one year before men started turning into Epics. Nobody knows why or how it still shines through the darkness. Of course, nobody knows why the Epics started appearing, or what their connection is to Calamity either. (p.21)
Forgive me for trotting out another expression in such quick succession, but knowledge is power, is it not? Would that it were so simple! After all, our protagonist, poor dear David, has a whole lot of knowledge — he's spent his entire adult life assembling it — but precious little power.

Alone, he's as helpless against the Epics as he was when one murdered his father in front of him — his father, who dared to dream of a hero. Alone, he might be better informed than most about the whys and wherefores of Steelheart's army, however he's no match for even the weakest of these superbeings. Alone, David's store of knowledge is unto nothing... which is why it's his heart's desire to join the Reckoners, a cell of rebels who have dedicated themselves to the death of the Epics. So when he figures out that they're in the city, he puts his life on the line to manufacture a meeting.

It isn't giving the game away to tell you that in time, the team takes him in. According to David's new boss, Prof, it seems his study of Steelheart might indeed be the key to defeating the evil overlord. Though many have tried and failed in the past, only he has seen Steelheart bleed, and this could be the piece that unlocks the ultimate puzzle.

But if the Reckoners are going to stand a chance of putting our protagonist's plan into action, they'll have to work out what Steelheart's unique weakness is. Every Epic has one.
The problem was, an Epic weakness could be just about anything. Tia [the Reckoners' in-house hacker] mentioned symbols — there were some Epics who, if they saw a specific pattern, lost their powers for a few moments. Others were weakened by thinking certain thoughts, not eating certain foods, or eating the wrong foods. The weaknesses were more varied than the powers themselves were. (p.118)
So begins Brandon Sanderson's new novel. Broadly speaking, at least. In actual fact I found Steelheart's first act rather lacking. The several action scenes it revolves around are absolutely adequate, but the plot punctuating them is predictable, the prose unpolished and the characterisation bland. Add to that — and this disappointed me most of all, given Sanderson's knack for knocking up neat new milieus — a great many of the specifics of this particular post-apocalypse appeared arbitrary. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the Epics' strengths and weaknesses; nor does the author attempt to address what caused Calamity.
Lots of people did have theories, and most would be happy to tell you about them. The Epics were the next stage in human evolution, or they were a punishment sent by this god or that, or they were really aliens. or they were the result of a government project. Or it was all fake and they were using technology to pretend they had powers. 
Most of the theories fell apart when confronted by facts. Normal people had gained powers and become Epics; they weren't aliens or anything like that. There were enough direct stories of a family member manifesting abilities. Scientists claimed to be baffled by the genetics of Epics. (pp.209-210)
So what is going on? Where did the Epics come from, and what do they want? These are just a few of the fascinating questions Sanderson asks but declines, for the larger part, to answer... which brings me back to my issues with the beginning of this book. Early on, there's a certain sense that the author is making it all up as he goes along — not a negative in itself, but taken together with everything else, I wasn't what you'd call keen to read the rest.

But here's the thing: I'm glad I gave Steelheart a chance to redeem itself. Admittedly, it mightn't have the best of beginnings, yet Sanderson finds his feet in time to make the remainder of his tale sensational. The aforementioned problems are still problems, but only with one small part of the entire narrative, because when the pace picks up, it rarely relents; the characters, including our protagonist, only really come into their own when in one another's company; whilst the story gathers such force as it goes that the reader can't help but be swept up, up and away with it.

It doesn't hurt that Sanderson is so self-aware. He draws attention to his own dreadful metaphors, going so far as to fashion a neat character beat from these; a decent deal sweetened by the earnest sense of humour he adopts to tell what turns out to be a pretty terrific tale. What Steelheart lacks in polish and initial impact it more than makes up for in terms of energy and affection. In the final summation, it's actually fantastic fun: a love letter of sorts to the superhero, though these are few and far between... and for good reason, in this instance.

What we have here, it becomes clear, is a very clever realisation of the idea that power corrupts.
Epics had a distinct, even incredible, lack of morals or conscience. That bothered some people, on a philosophical level. Theorists, scholars. They wondered at the sheer inhumanity many Epics manifested. Did the Epics kill because Calamity chose — for whatever reason — only terrible people to gain powers? Or did they kill because such amazing power twisted a person, made them irresponsible? 
There were no conclusive answers. I didn't care; I wasn't a scholar. Yes, I did research, but so did a sports fan when he followed his team. It didn't matter to me why the Epics did what they did any more than a baseball fan wondered at the physics of a bat hitting a ball. [...] Only one thing mattered — Epics gave no thought for originary human life. A brutal murder was a fitting retribution, in their minds, for the most minor of infractions. (pp.73-74)
This theme, at least, the author pays off in spades... unlike various other essential elements of Steelheart's premise.

It's hard not to see Sanderson's back-catalogue in terms of major and minor works. In the past, he's even discussed this description, explaining that novels of the latter category represent "refreshers" from the big epics which are his true love, but can be very demanding mentally. "I like to be very free and loose when I write them," he adds — and sadly, that practice is apparent in Steelheart. That said, this is much more satisfying than a paltry palate-cleanser.

I can hardly believe I'm saying this, given the failings of Steelheart's first act — not to mention its lack of clarity as regards certain crucial concepts — but I can't wait to see what Brandon Sanderson does with the rest of the Reckoners trilogy this short, sweet book about superpowers begins.


by Brandon Sanderson

UK Publication: September 2013, Gollancz
US Publication: September 2013, Tor

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Thursday 26 September 2013

But I Digress | Steam Powered

Last week, Valve teased three impending announcements. The first, SteamOS, made a lot of sense. The second I'm not so sure about. The last one is still to come, at the time of this writing, but it's going to be about a Steam Machine controller, of course.

There go my dreams of Half-Life 3!

But it wouldn't do to gloss over the big news, which is that the Steam Box is real. Some of you must be wondering... the Steam what? Well, as Dark Horizons reports:
After years of speculation, Valve have confirmed the existence of their long-awaited Steam Box video game console, or rather the Steam Machines which will release in 2014. 
Rather than a single, one spec box like a Playstation 4 or Xbox One, Valve is working with multiple partners to launch a variety of Steam gaming machines for the market next year. All will run Linux-based SteamOS, which was announced on Monday. 
The aim is to bring the popular Steam gaming service into the lounge room, allowing users to play PC games on your big screen TV with a game controller rather than a keyboard.
This is good news for any number of reasons.

In the past year I've personally played any number of games on my PC through Steam, and I know I'm not alone in this. With the 360 and to a lesser extent the PS3 looking awfully long in the tooth, even mid-range systems like the tower I built late last year do a better job of handling the demands of today's AAA games. Admittedly there's new hardware on the horizon now, and I'm sure I'll end up with one console or the other this coming Christmas, but the desire to play games on my PC is in me now. I have, however, often wished I could do so in the comfort of my living room, on the big screen and with the full force of my sound system in effect...

Next year, Valve mean to make my dreams real.

I say more power to them. I can certainly see myself buying a Steam Machine, presuming the price is right. That said, I think they've missed a trick. As noted in the originating Dark Horizons article, there won't be one, but many of these machines:
Different manufacturers are expected create all sorts of boxes with different levels of power and at different price points (just like they do now with PCs). Valve isn't so much attempting to enter the game console war as it is trying to create an entire category of gaming machines.
Which is ambitious... but, I worry, rather wrong-headed.

By all means bring multiple models of the Steam Machine to market, Valve — have an entry-level version and a bleeding-edge box — but too much choice stands to kill this concept before it's even born. A single Steam Machine, or two at a push, could unify a disparate market to the point that the PS4 and the XB1 might well be rendered irrelevant; making ten or more models is simply taking the piss.

Thoughts from the peanut gallery, please! Can you see yourself buying a Steam Machine?

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Book Review | Proxima by Stephen Baxter

The very far future: The Galaxy is a drifting wreck of black holes, neutron stars, chill white dwarfs. The age of star formation is long past. Yet there is life here, feeding off the energies of the stellar remnants, and there is mind, a tremendous Galaxy-spanning intelligence each of whose thoughts lasts a hundred thousand years. And this mind cradles memories of a long-gone age when a more compact universe was full of light...

The 27th century: Proxima Centauri, an undistinguished red dwarf star, is the nearest star to our sun — and (in this fiction), the nearest to host a world, Proxima IV, habitable by humans. But Proxima IV is unlike Earth in many ways. Huddling close to the warmth, orbiting in weeks, it keeps one face to its parent star at all times. The 'substellar point', with the star forever overhead, is a blasted desert, and the 'antistellar point' on the far side is under an ice cap in perpetual darkness. How would it be to live on such a world?

Needle ships fall from Proxima IV's sky. Yuri Jones, with 1000 others, is about to find out...

Proxima tells the amazing tale of how we colonise a harsh new eden, and the secret we find there that will change our role in the Universe for ever.


We have wondered how life began ever since we had the wherewithal to wonder, I warrant. Generation after generation, inquiring minds have asked exactly that: a question that has no absolute answer, so far. A question so complex that many expect we'll never figure it out, not for a fact.

Saying that, these days, we have a pretty decent theory. It's all conjecture, of course, but breakthrough after breakthrough made in recent years appear to agree that in all likelihood, life began by way of RNA, or ribonucleic acid: a self-replicating molecule composed of four building blocks of a sort, two of which scientists have already successfully synthesised using the same simple chemicals that existed on Earth at the time the first fabled spark was struck.

But what if somewhere far from here — fully four years at the speed of light from the solar system we call home — life began in a very different manner? What if the building blocks it was fashioned from were fundamentally different? Would life find a way anyway?

That's the question Stephen Baxter asks in his latest novel, Proxima, the first part of an absorbing and characteristically ambitious new duology about the colonisation of a vast exoplanet... and the answer? No less than a resounding yes.

Meet Yuri Eden: not our hero's real name, but it'll do. It'll have to.
Yuri had been born on Earth in the year 2067, nearly a hundred years ago, and, dozing in a cryo tank, had missed mankind's heroic expansion out into the solar system. It had been his fortune to wake up in a prison-like colony on what he had learned, gradually, was Mars. But now, after another compulsory sleep, this was different again. (p.9)
At the very outset of the text, Yuri assumes he's back on Earth. Does he have another thing coming! Unhappily, he's been awakened "aboard the prosaically named Ad Astra," (p.54) a prison ship of criminals in the process of being transported to an apparently habitable planet orbiting a far-distant star, the better to people it with UN citizens before China — this future's superpower — can do likewise.

Proxima, incidentally, is a real red dwarf, though Baxter admits in the afterword to having invented the other celestial bodies in its system for this fiction — including Per Ardua, the planet our protagonist and his fellow detainees are unceremoniously deposited on shortly. Initially, Yuri is "disoriented, bewildered — too mixed up [...] to be either fearful or excited about setting foot on this alien world. Maybe that would come later. Or not. After all, countless generations had dreamed of reaching Mars, and that had turned out to be a shithole." (p.59)

Cumulatively, the colonists number in the high hundreds, but they're soon separated into groups of no more than fourteen, and even these numbers are quickly whittled down. Abandoned incredible distances from one another without the slightest hint of supervision, the men amongst Yuri's makeshift community set about killing one another for "access" to the women. A foolproof plan, I'm sure...

Throughout this period of fear and upheaval, Yuri does his best to keep himself to himself — as does another press-ganged Per Arduan: Mardina, a crewmember of the Ad Astra who was cruelly thrown to the wolves, as it were, after a murder on the shuttle down to the surface left Yuri's group biologically unbalanced.

Years pass in this manner. Years in which it becomes clear that they really are on their own in an unchangeable alien landscape. Mardina won't wholly give up hope, but eventually, she and Yuri break away from the other incomers, and start thinking about the unthinkable... about putting down roots. Ahoy, existential crisis!
Inside his head, out of sight of any unseen cameras, unheard by any hidden microphones, there were days when Yuri felt overwhelmed by a kind of black depression. Maybe it was the static nature of this world, the sky, the landscape, the stubbornly unmoving sun. Nothing changed, unless you made it change. Sometimes he thought that all they were doing was no more meaningful than the marks he used to scribble on the walls of solitary-confinement cells in Eden. And when they died, he supposed, it would all just erode away, and there would be no trace they had ever existed, here on Per Ardua.
Ultimately, Yuri and Mardina do find reasons to keep on keeping on. I won't give them away, except to say that our protagonist becomes fascinated with the alien flora and fauna of Per Ardua:
Everything living was built out of stems here. Even the huge forest trees were stems grown large for the main trunk; even their leaves proved to be nothing but more stems, specialised, distorted in form, jointed together, supporting a kind of webbing. The stems themselves [...] were assembled from something like the cells that comprised terrestrial life. It was as if on Per Ardua complex life had developed by a subtly different route than on Earth. Rather than construct a complex organism direct from a multitude of cells, Arduan cells were first assembled into stems, and the life forms, from builders to trees to the big herbivores and carnivores of the plains and forest clearings, were all put together from the stems, as if fabricated from standard-issue components. (p.112)
A number of other narrative threads are in play in Proxima. We spend several tremendously memorable chapters in the company of Angelia 5941, "a disc spun of carbon sheets, a hundred metres across and just a hundredth of a millimetre thick. Yet she was fully aware, her consciousness sustained by currents and charge stores in the multilayered mesh of electrically conductive carbon of which she was composed." (p.65) Angelia put me in mind of 'Malak,' the Peter Watts short story in Engineering Infinity, and though Baxter doesn't go as far, his efforts to make this artificial perspective sympathetic are nevertheless effective.

Then there's Stephanie Kalinski, the daughter of the scientist who assembled Angelia, and her identical twin, Penny. Stephanie, however, doesn't believe in Penny. Before she ventured into an ancient Hatch discovered in the mantle of Mercury, she lived the life of an only child. Afterwards, it is as if her past has been rewired; as if history itself has shifted to fit around her inexplicable sister.

A fantastic concept, excellently executed, and it says a lot about Proxima that it's at best a secondary plot point. Its themes are perhaps heavy-handed — doors open, don't you know? — but Baxter's new novel is so gleefully full of ideas that it's easy, in the moment, to overlook its blunter beats. Said attitude extends to some awkward, and not entirely necessary infodumping, which the author inserts insouciantly into various conversations. I ever so wish he'd resisted this, though the more fantastical aspects of Proxima are mostly bolstered by their basis in scientific fact.

Narratively, the story of Yuri and Mardina journeying across this weird new world is very Dark Eden indeed, and as with Chris Beckett's Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novel, the sense of wonder Baxter effects again and again in the course of exploring the unknown is emblematic of science fiction at its finest.

Sadly, one of the genre's weaker points comes through too, because all too often, Proxima is all head and no heart. It lacks, alas, an emotional core — though there's certainly room for one through Yuri. But Baxter has him play his cards so close to his chest that we never really feel like we know him. We may well come to care for him, but this is simply a by-product of spending so long in his company.

Be that as it may, the biggest problem with Proxima is dwarfed by the sheer impetus of its author's intellectual ambition, which extends to asking and answering pressing questions about humanity's past; up to and including the origin of the species, indeed. There's so very much going on, a veritable spree of ideas, and so many of these succeed beyond my wildest dreams — see the builders, the poles of Per Ardua, the kernels Stephanie studies, not to mention the gathering, Paul McAuley-esque conflict between the opposing forces of this future — that picking holes in this awesome novel seems particularly mean-spirited.

Make no mistake: Proxima is immensely entertaining and eminently accessible science fiction which builds towards a catastrophic, cold War of the Worlds conclusion that is both breathtaking and bone-chilling. For fans of the genre Stephen Baxter has brought so much to since the Xeelee Sequence, not reading it is not an option. Ultimately, Ultima can't come soon enough.


by Stephen Baxter

UK & US Publication: September 2013, Gollancz

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Friday 20 September 2013

Book Review | Adam Robots by Adam Roberts

"I like the idea of writing at least one thing in all the myriad sub-genres and sub-sub-genres of SF — so the the first story here is a robot story, the second a story about immortality, the third a time-travel story, the fourth religious SF, the fifth philosophical SF, the sixth an exercise in classic Golden Age SF, the seventh a time-travel story, the eighth a story of SFnal genetics... but, look, this list is getting wearisome.

"They're all different (apart from the one which isn't; you can work out which one I mean yourself). Even the ways in which they differ differs. So in fact the first story is an Adam-and-Eve tale, the second is a prison story, the third a tale of scientific hubris, the fourth military SF and so on. You'll see what I mean." — A. R.

Gathered together here for the first time are 24 superb and varied glances into and out of the world of science fiction. Adam Robots is the first collection of short stories published in the UK from one of the genre's most exciting writers.


The title of the first major collection of short stories by the academic, critic and satirist Adam Roberts tells us almost everything we need to know about Adam Robots.

It's a joke, of course: a suggestive enmeshing of two created creatures delivered with a wink and a nod, if not a jarring slap across the back. "Adam" is either Adam Roberts the author, or Adam the first man — according to Christian theology, obviously — whilst "Robots" refers to the thinking things which feature in many of Roberts' shorts; most notably the titular tale, which happens to take place in a reconfigured Eden, and revolve around its own forbidden fruit. 

The latter term could also be said to represent all of the twenty four stories, short or not, brought together in this exceedingly clever collection. For what are each of these if not machines — i.e. "apparatus using mechanical power and having several parts, each with a definite function and together performing a particular task" — capable of carrying out a series of complex tasks?

Be it a juxtaposition of the created man and the machines he creates or of the storyteller and the stories he tells, one way or the other, Adam Robots is a play on words. A pun! But is it funny?
"The person laughed at this. Laughter. See also: chuckles, clucking, percussive exhalations iterated. See also: tears, hiccoughs, car-alarm. Click, click." (p.3)
Well, it is, and it isn't. It is in the moment of many of these frequently fleeting fictions, when the reader realises what Roberts is about; what this or that idea is inspired by, what well-worn trope he's tipping his hat at. Yet it isn't when one grasps that the cost of this canniness is often character and narrative, the very building blocks of story as we know it. 

The author acknowledges as much in his page-long preface. "Some of the pieces in this collection reflect the usual forms and rituals of 'short storytelling'; but quite a few don't. Textus disrespectus." (p.1) And that's the best explanation you're going to get.

Roberts also begins a list of the multitudinous ways the many and various tales which follow could potentially be read in this amusing introduction — "the first story here is 'a robot story'; the second a story about immortality, the third a time-travel story, the fourth religious SF," (p.1) and so on — before admitting how "wearisome" a business this is, and letting the stories speak for themselves. Inasmuch as they can be seen to... though some can't, or don't, or won't.

In any event, I'm going to take a different tack in this article. Rather than touching on each and every one of Adam Robots' twenty-four stories, I'll discuss a couple that I loved, and a couple that I loved less — like the closing story, 'Me:topia.'

The tale of four neanderthal astronauts who crash-land on a circular celestial body resembling "the map of Europe rendered in some impossible geographic form of photographic-negative," 'Me:topia' differs from Adam Robots' most disappointing shorts in that it has what they in large part lack: a plot, plus characters to carry us through it; characters I dare say we come to care about. Our protagonist, Vins, strikes out from the wreckage of his shattered shuttle to discover the nature of the strange, man-made place he has made landfall upon. In so doing, he attracts the attention of the space-coin's creator, who is less than pleased that his sanctuary has been trespassed upon. Vins proceeds to seek out the companions he had abandoned in order to alert them to this danger.

And then?

And then, 'Me:topia' simply ends, by way of an abrupt interruption courtesy the tale's unnamed narrator, who essentially says than what happens after that doesn't matter. Instead of resolving any of the elements we've become interested in, the narrator deigns to discuss the sunrise. "The light, the translucence of matter, the inflection of the photons, the grass singing. That's where it's at." (p.388) The end takes the shape of a playout groove as cruel as it is unusual.

I'm sure all this is in service of something significant that I'm simply missing, but whatever Roberts' point, 'Me:topia' left me glad that Adam Robots was over as opposed to wanting more.

That said, I certainly don't regret reading it. Some of the science fiction collected herein is stunning, as essential as it is eclectic, but perhaps an equal quantity of it can be summarised thusly: here's an idea. Isn't it interesting? Next! "What is not always a question that gets answered. Nor is why." (p.310)

Roberts is to my mind a much more satisfying author in the long form, where he's beholden to the same building blocks he's so cavalier about here, so it's no surprise that my favourite stories from Adam Robots were longer, largely, than those I liked least. 'Thrownness' a terrific riff on Groundhog Day in which a perfectly decent, albeit temporarily displaced human being finds himself behaving more and more badly when he realises that nothing he does has any measurable consequence. The novelette 'Anticopernicus' chronicles the first contact between humankind and the so-called Cygnics through the luckless lens of Ange Mlinko, an anti-social astronaut overlooked for the very visible mission mounted to meet these beings.

These are superlative stories both, blending the incredible conceptual breakthroughs Roberts draws attention to elsewhere — in this instance regarding the multiverse and Einstein's discarded dark energy respectively — with adeptly-drawn characters and enough good old-fashioned narrative to manufacture measurable emotional investment in addition to the at best intellectual interest with which I responded to a number of others, like 'ReMorse®,' 'The Chrome Chromosome' and 'Godbombing'; fragmentary narratives which struggle to strike what is to my mind the right balance between playful experimentation and outright obscurity.

As best-in-class sf stories, 'Thrownness' and 'Anticopernicus' are far from alone in Adam Robots — the very finest "actually seemed to vibrate with joy, a pure, high, warbly sound like a finger running round the lip of a wine-glass" (p.125) — but there are as many of the other sort of short in this difficult, if intermittently excellent (and certainly representative) collection.


Adam Robots
by Adam Roberts

UK Publication: January 2013, Gollancz
US Publication: September 2013, Gollancz

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Thursday 19 September 2013

Coming Attractions | The Unquiet House by Alison Littlewood

In early 2012, in the midst of a cold season of my own, I took a deep breath and immersed myself in Alison Littlewood's darkly fantastic first novel. In the review I wrote at the time, I concluded that it was "a powerful story about motherhood... about family, and the ties that bind us. Excepting a few missteps that it bears saying plague all and sundry authors in this genre [...] A Cold Season is a terrifically chilling tale. A sterling debut which bodes unspeakably well for its author and beyond."

By which I meant Jo Fletcher Books too: a brand new genre fiction-focussed imprint at the time. Now, nearly two years later, I'm pleased as can be to report that their forthcoming slate still looks great.

This week I was lucky enough to secure an early look at what's to come from JFB in 2014, and alongside The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord and Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald, The Unquiet House — Alison Littlewood's next novel — was one of the highlights of a packed catalogue.

Here's the cover art:

And a brief blurb about the book to boot:
Mire House is dreary, dark, cold and infested with midges. But when Emma Dean inherits it from a distant relation, she immediately feels a sense of belonging. 
It isn’t long before Charlie Mitchell, grandson of the original owner, appears claiming that he wants to seek out his family. But Emma suspects he’s more interested in the house than his long-lost relations. 
And when she starts seeing ghostly figures, Emma begins to wonder: is Charlie trying to scare her away, or are there darker secrets lurking in the corners of Mire House?
That I never got around to reviewing Littlewood's second novel is a real regret, but I did indeed read it, and Path of Needles did nothing to diminish my appreciation of an abominably promising new horror author. Safe to say I won't make the same mistake when The Unquiet House is released in the UK next March.

Monday 16 September 2013

Book Review | Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson

There is Thorn, a shaman himself. He lives to pass down his wisdom and his stories -- to teach those who would follow in his footsteps.

There is Heather, the healer who, in many ways, holds the clan together.

There is Elga, an outsider and the bringer of change.

And then there is Loon, the next shaman, who is determined to find his own path. But in a world so treacherous, that journey is never simple — and where it may lead is never certain.

Shaman is a powerful, thrilling and heart-breaking story of one young man's journey into adulthood — and an awe-inspiring vision of how we lived thirty thousand years ago.


What a difference a moment makes.

I speak, albeit obliquely, of a single, solitary sequence at the very outset of Kim Stanley Robinson's last novel; a prologue so powerful, a passage so painstakingly picturesque, that I would have recommended 2312 right there and then, solely on the basis of its first few pages.

Some months later, I named 2312 my favourite reading experience of the year because there was, fortuitously, much more to it than a brilliant beginning. But even if the rest of the book had been utter rubbish... even if its characters had left me cold and its narrative had meandered meaninglessly... even if its themes and ideas had been realised with a heavy hand... even then, the lonely, lovely — no, glorious moment with which it opens would have lent the remainder incredible resonance.

Though they are few and far between, I fear, it's moments like these — moments that take us out of ourselves and deposit us elsewhere and elsewhen, in startling worlds and circumstances none among us can hope to know in our natural lives — it's moments like these that remind me why I fell under the spell of speculative fiction in the first place.

Kim Stanley Robinson's new novel comes complete with several such set-pieces, so complete and pristine that they inspire a sense of wonder similar to that suggested by very best SF... yet Shaman it isn't science fiction in any sense. It takes place many millennia ago rather than many millennia hence, in the last years of the Pleistocene period — during what's commonly called the ice age — when Neanderthal man shared the slippery surface of the unblemished earth with our own ancient ancestors: a setting as affecting and astonishing in its way as the dizzying desolation of deep space.
The blue of the sky throbbed with different blues, each more blue than the next. The clouds in the blue were scalloped and articulated like driftwood, and crawled around in themselves like otters at play. [Loon] could see everything at once. His spirit kept tugging at the top of his head, lifting him so that he had to concentrate to keep his balance. The problem made him laugh. The world was so great, so beautiful. Something like a lion: it would kill you if it could, but in the meantime it was so very, very beautiful. He would have cried at how beautiful it was, but he was laughing too much, he was too happy at being there walking in it. (p.50)
So muses Loon, Shaman's central character, during the wander Robinson's breathtaking new book begins with: a walkabout of sorts which paves the way for one of the moments I mentioned earlier. But this time, our sense of wonder does not come courtesy a suicidal sunwalker's decision to live as the killing light of said star spills across Mercury's ancient face, as in 2312. This time, a horse is all Robinson requires to make the magic happen.

That said, the sequences share a sunrise:
The god animal was lit by the sun almost from below. Long black head, so etched and fine. The land's witness to the end of his wander, pawing once, then nodding and lifting. Throwing his great head side to side, his black eyes observing Loon across the gulf of air between them. Black mane short and upright, black body rounded and strong. 
Then without warning the horse tossed his long head up at the sky, off toward the sun, and this movement popped in Loon's eye and bulged out across the space between them, scoring his eyes such that he could close them and see it again; Loon's eyes spilled over, the tears ran down his face, his throat clamped down and his chest went tight and quivered. (pp.61-62)
A beautiful thing, truly, and a testament to the sensory strengths of Robinson's particular prose and mode of storytelling. What would be unremarkable in the hands of most other authors is instilled instead with a sweep of soaring emotion. There's no more to this here horse than meets the eye, yet to Loon — and indeed to readers who have hardly begun to grasp the hardships ahead of him — it represents a beginning, and an end as well. After all, he is "walking into a new world, a new kind of existence," where he will have to "face something, learn something, accomplish something. Change into something else: a sorcerer, a man in the world." (p.20) Thus this moment — and marked so marvellously! — means everything to him, and to be sure, it touches us too.

Loon's inaugural wander is one of the most memorable sections of Shaman, certainly, but there's plenty of Robinson's new novel left to recommend yet. What follows is an affectionate account of Loon's life as part of the Wolf pack, and though it goes on a little long without incident — they hunt, they gather, they starve; they live, they dance, they die — beyond this there is a breathtaking trip into the wintry wilderness, a festival during which Loon learns about love, and a rite of passage into the bare flesh of Mother Earth herself which culminates in a last gasp of absolute darkness.

On the whole, I suppose the story's on the slight side, but what narrative drive Shaman perhaps lacks, at least in part, the author more than makes up for with his masterful handling of its central character, whose coming of age from boy to man and from man to shaman the novel cumulatively chronicles. This is in addition to Robinson's carefully layered characterisation of the others Loon looks to, like Heather and Elga and Click, whom I loved. To a one, they are wonderfully done.

If Shaman is about any single thing, it's about legacies lost and left. Of particular significance, then, is Thorn, the long-suffering so-and-so in charge of painting the caves and preserving the memories of the tribe he tends. When the time is right, he plans to pass the proverbial torch to Loon. But Loon has a lot left to learn, and precious little interest in Thorn's wisdom, be it worldly or otherwise, so as that latter tries to make an impression on his indifferent apprentice, he can seem a bit of a mad old man.
We had a bad shaman.
This is what Thorn would say whenever he was doing something bad himself. Object to whatever it was and he would pull up his long gray braids to show the mangled red nubbings surrounding his earholes. His shaman had stuck bone needles through the flesh of his boys' ears and then ripped them out sideways, to help them remember things. Thorn when he wanted the same result would flick Loon hard on the ear and then point at the side of his own head, with a titled look that said, You think you have it bad? (p.3)
As vindictive as Thorn sometimes seems, it is through him, I think, and his budding relationship with Loon, that we arrive, at the last, at the heart of the matter, for it is he who asks the question Shaman answers: what do we leave behind, and why?

Though rather more modest in its scope and conventional in its concepts than Kim Stanley Robinson's staggering space operas, Shaman tells an ambitious, absorbing and satisfyingly self-contained tale on its own terms. At once delightful and devastating, it transports us to a moment in time, reverently preserved and impeccably portrayed... and if that moment is off in the other direction than this author tends to take us, then know that he is as adept a guide to the distant past as he has ever been the far-flung future.


by Kim Stanley Robinson

UK & US Publication: September 2013, Orbit

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Friday 13 September 2013

You Tell Me | A Machine for Friday the 13th

I'm not a particularly superstitious person, so the fact that it's Friday the 13th fails to inspire feelings of fear in me. That said, with the most monstrous month almost upon us, I've been reading a raft of horror novels for review in recent weeks, and I find myself drawn, quite despite myself, to terror.

I love fantasy for its epic quests, and science fiction for its breathtaking sense of scale, but it strikes me that there's nothing quite like the desperate uncertainty that the very best scary stories suggest. The exquisite thrill of the shiver or the sudden shock of something startling affects me, at least, in a much more immediate way than the slow burn of some secondary world's wonders.

Which is simply to say, I know how I'll be spending my evening: tentatively investigating the terrifying spaces of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs

If it can even hold a candle to its terrifying predecessor — and coming as it does from the developers of the tremendously affecting Dear Esther, I have high hopes — I can't imagine I'll get a whole lot of sleep this weekend.

Will you be spending Friday the 13th with something unspeakably creepy?

Wednesday 11 September 2013

The Scotsman Abroad | Summiting Mount Mind Meld

A little while ago, I received an email from the esteemed Paul Weimer, wondering whether I'd be interested in participating in the latest Mind Meld he was putting together. It was an absolute honour to be asked, so of course I agreed immediately.

But what with everything else that's been going on in my neck of the woods in recent weeks, this past weekend was the first opportunity I had to work on my response, and as it happens, I had just caught a cold from the wicked children I tutor when I'm not silly busy reviewing books.

Determined not to disappoint, I managed to put a piece together in any event, and though I hardly remember writing it, seeing it on the Hugo Award-winning SF Signal this morning — alongside responses from Cheryl Morgan, Ian Sales, Anne Lyle, Lou Anders and a goodly number of others — I'm really rather pleased with how my first contribution to the Mind Meld turned out. It's as much a reflection on how I approach Mount To-be-read today as it is an accounting of the books that are in my bedside cabinet at the moment:
I warrant we all have our own ways of describing the groups of books we mean to read. Mount To-be-read works for me, but mostly because it suggests something more; something I can’t help but correlate with all the climbing I did as a kid. 
Maybe climbing isn’t the right way to describe the year-round hobby my dad and I had. Hillwalking was what we were about. Come rain or shine, sun or snow, my Munro Bagger of a father always had some summit in mind. 
Many climbs I quite liked. But there were others. Bog-ridden slogs. Hills that went on and on and on, only to end in anti-climax: a beautiful view obscured by overcast clouds, or a chance meeting with other people — and up there in the middle of nowhere, that tended to cheapen the experience. 
Part of the problem was that my dad was far fitter than I. Matter of fact, he still is — as evidenced by the last hill we walked. That is to say, we climb together to this day, though rather less often now than then. Then, I hardly had a lot of choice in the matter... thus there were times when I hated the hills. I hated how hard they were, how fleeting the feeling of overcoming one when the next was only ever a weekend away. 
Sound familiar?
I may repost my response in full here on The Speculative Scotsman at a later date, but a large part of the pleasure of the Mind Mend, for me at least — and I've been following the feature for years — is seeing how differently every participant responds to the selfsame question; how one response reflects and refracts the others around it.

So please, head on over to SF Signal and read today's most excellent Mind Meld in its entirety.

Tuesday 10 September 2013

Book Review | More Than This by Patrick Ness

A boy drowns, desperate and alone in his final moments. He dies.

Then he wakes, naked, bruised and thirsty, but alive.

How can this be? And what is this strange, deserted place?

As he struggles to understand what is happening, the boy dares to hope. Might this not be the end? Might there be more to this life, or perhaps this afterlife?


A decade on from The Crash of Hennington, this April saw the publication of Patrick Ness's first novel ostensibly for adults since his little-seen 2003 debut... and what a novel The Crane Wife was! At the time, I concluded that it was "simply sublime: a story as strange, ultimately, as it is true," and to be sure, it's still sitting pretty in my list of the year's best books. Now the two-time Carnegie Medal award-winner is back doing... well, I wouldn't say what he does best, not after the enchanting affair aforementioned, but doing, again, the thing with which he's found the most success: genre fiction by way of YA.

But this isn't the YA of your young adulthood. Not by any stretch of the imagination — and there's imagination aplenty in More Than This. It's searching, but soaring. Inconceivably bleak and indisputably brilliant. It's as speculative as anything Ness has written in the years since he appeared on the scene, yet the weird has rarely felt so real; the surreal so sweetly sincere.

Incredibly, it begins with the death — with the drowning — of our poor protagonist Seth, culminating in an "impact just behind his left ear [which] fractures his skull, splintering it into his brain, the force of it also crushing his third and fourth vertebrae, severing both his cerebral artery and his spinal cord, an injury from which there is no return, no recovery. No chance." (p.11)

Be that as it may, this end is a beginning as well, because Seth doesn't simply cease to exist. He's dead, yes, but his life, in some form, goes on...

"The first moments after the boy's death pass for him in a confused and weighty blur," (p.15) and they're apt to affect readers reeling from the mercilessness of Seth's postmortem-esque end equally. But time ticks ever on. "An impossible amount of time passes," in fact; be it "a day, a year, maybe even an eternity, there is no way he can know. Finally, in the distance, the light begins to slowly, almost imperceptibly change." (p.16)

Little by little, things become clearer. Somehow, Seth has awoken in his old house in England, where he and his little brother Owen were brought up before they moved to America. It seems uncannily alike the selfsame summer, he realises, that something indescribably horrible happened in his past; the very unfortunate event that led them to emigrate in the first place. Seth knows it's important, but he can't quite put his finger on what it was.

The village, in any event, is different. That is to say it's much the same as Seth remembers it in many ways, except unnaturally empty — there's no-one to be seen, certainly; there's no traffic, no noise, no nothing — plus it's covered in thick layers of what our protagonist assumes is undisturbed dirt and dust. And that's hardly the half of it. As Seth senses, "this place is more wrong than even all that's obvious. There's an unreality under all the dust, all the weeds. Ground that seems solid but that might give way any moment." (p.51) An indeterminate number of days later — days punctuated by dreams of experiences so vivid that he's practically reliving them — he reflects as follows:

It feels real enough. Certainly to the touch, and definitely to the nose. But it's also a world that only seems to have him in it, so how real can it be? If this is just a dusty old memory that he's trapped in, maybe it isn't really even a place at all, maybe it's just what happens when your final dying seconds turn into an eternity. The place of the worst season of your life, frozen forever, decaying without ever really dying. (p.79)
There are others, then, but Seth's first serious theory is that he's in hell, or some other aspect of the afterlife. Purgatory, perhaps. Speaking of which, please: leave your Lost baggage in the basement, where in all honesty it belongs. More Than This isn't that. What it is, exactly, is difficult to describe without spoiling the surprise. I'll only imply — as Ness does, very neatly indeed — that it has something to do with a pivotal point in our protagonist's past, a memory that Seth refuses to face... of an accident... a prolonged trauma, suffered by another, and perpetuated by his parents.

He stops. The memory is a dangerous one. He can feel himself teetering again, an abyss of confusion and despair looking right back up at him, threatening to swallow him if he so much as glances at it. [...] That can be for later, he tells himself. You're hungry. Everything else can wait. (p.47)
Only in this way, by focussing wholly on his immediate needs — by existing in physical and psychological isolation both figuratively and literally — can Seth keep on keeping on. He knows of no other option.

Besides Seth's death, so little happens in the opening chapters of More Than This that you'd think it'd be boring. But no. If you’ve come across Ness’s narratives in the past, this shall not shock. If you haven’t, your first order of business is to buy up his entire back catalogue — and be assured that the author’s newest novel is riveting, edge-of-your-reading-seat stuff from beginning to end.

The early sections are reminiscent of The Silent Land by Graham Joyce; something of a prose stylist himself, though Ness, I’d stress, has the edge. He effects in the reader a feeling of wonder and discovery paired with an impalpable sense of threat, very much mirroring Seth’s own outlook. Whilst we experience More Than This from the third-person perspective, its painstaking narration perfectly reflects our protagonist’s inexorable descent into despair. And as his awareness of the nature of this place escalates, ours does too.

There is more to More Than This than this... much more, yet many of the novel's successes depend on Seth's struggle to work out what in hell (ahem) has happened to him, where he is, and above all else, why. As such, there’s a whole lot I can't talk about. What I will say is that Ness is winningly aware of the expectations he's inviting here. After parsing one rather far-fetched rationalisation of his situation, Seth even echoes said sentiment:

“Crap sci-fi,” Seth mutters to himself. “Life is never actually that interesting. It’s the kind of story—“He stops again.
It's the kind of story where everything's explained by one big secret, like [...] what's real and what's not being reversed. The kind of story you watched for two hours, were satisfied with the twist, and then got on with your life.
The kind of story his own mind would provide to make sense of this place. (pp.247-248)
Well, you know... yes and no. Truth be told, the denouement is likely to prove divisive. Some, I’m sure, will call it a cop-out. I think it knows exactly what it’s about.

At times, More Than This is like a literary experiment that only by the grace of its creator resulted in a proper novel, but in the hands of a poised, perfectionist prose-smith like Patrick Ness, it's rarely less than life-affirming.


More Than This
by Patrick Ness

UK Publication: September 2013, Walker Books
US Publication: September 2013, Candlewick Press

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Monday 9 September 2013

Guest Post | "Faith in Fiction" by David Towsey

Today it's my pleasure to host a guest post from David Towsey, whose "bloody biblical" debut I reviewed late last week. I spoke quite openly about my faith, or lack thereof, in that article, and indeed, I came away keen to know more about the author's approach to the touchy subject above.

I knew it'd be a big ask, but belief is as powerful a pivot-point as it is provocative, so I cast caution to the wind and touched base with David to see if he'd be interested in discussing his particular perspective. He took the subject seriously from word one, and came back to me with the guest post below.

What follows, then, are the thoughts of "an enthusiastic novice" on faith, and how it factors into fiction.


When Niall asked me to write a guest post about my faith and how it informed Your Brother's Blood, I was at first reluctant. To be honest, I was terrified. I imagined my blundering sentences being examined and then torn apart in great detail, counter-posts exclaiming what a terrible person I must be, and worse. Religion is a difficult subject; it's a lot of things to a lot of different people and that can make it very hard to talk and write about. It's part of the trifecta of topics that in my house were not suitable for discussion at the dinner table. 

As a writer, I'm acutely aware that when I involve religion in my work I'm going to be creating problems for some readers. But as Your Brother's Blood isn't on sale in the UK as I'm writing this post, it is obviously hard to gauge reader-response. Perhaps readers will be more inclined to focus on the zombie-esque characters than the treatment of Christianity, but I understand both may raise questions. Questions like: how did my faith inform my debut novel Your Brother's Blood?

The short answer is: it didn't. And that's because I don't have a faith. I am a kind of lethargic atheist. I grew up in a non-religious household. I did attend a Church of England primary school. For assemblies we would file into the church that was next to the school. I can remember very little except the songs. 'Dance, dance, wherever you may be...' That was a favourite. As was the one that said the word 'naked'. [I find myself singing 'He's Got the Whole World in His Hands' with alarming regularity - Niall] Some of the teachings must have sunk into my subconscious. But that's my subconscious, and I prefer to leave that alone.

Lethargic and tolerant atheism. I don't begrudge anyone their faith. In fact, I'm slightly envious of it. Part of me would very much like to be a strong believer in one of the major world religions. From the outside looking in there seems to be a great degree of security and support in faith. But I just don't feel the faith, and I don't think that's the kind of thing you can fake. There are times when I struggle to understand some of the acts that are done in the name of various religions. My failure to understand can sometimes lead to angry words or feelings, but this is not unique to religion. People do things I don't comprehend all the time.

So if I'm an atheist, why write a book that involves a future vision of Christianity? Firstly, the Bible fascinates me. I tried to read it once, cover-to-cover. I found it impossible and am in awe of anyone who has. But I approach the Bible as a writer. That is worth emphasising. I am not looking for spiritual guidance. My fascination comes from the amazing stories and characters in the text. More so, there are some fantastic turns-of-phrase. For me, it's a great resource. And I am a child of the digital age. Instead of having a paper copy of the Bible on my desk, I have bookmarked. Completely searchable, with many different versions of the Bible available, I spend hours on this site. Search the word 'flower' and there are thirty-four results. Brilliant. You can view the passages in context, or see the whole chapter, in just a single click.

Secondly, I believe that, in a challenging world like that of Your Brother's Blood, there would be many people who turned to religion for answers. This is something people have done for millennia – some might even argue it is the whole reason for organised religion. Answers for all the big questions, but also answers on how to live day-to-day. Over the course of the Walkin' Trilogy, I show how different people and communities handle the issue of the Walkin' – a kind of undead population. Your Brother's Blood focuses heavily on the town of Barkley that is fairly hard-line in its belief systems. I don't condemn Barkley for its beliefs. Despite the fact that if there is a villain in the novel then they are from Barkley, the same is true of the hero of the book. The difference is in the individual – something I think is true of all world religions and their believers.

Lastly, there is what I like to think of as the 'writers in space' argument. I write in the SF/F genre – I'll let you decide which Your Brother's Blood is – and that means approaching subjects that are unknown to me as an author. If friends of mine can write about space travel without being an astronaut, it seems odd to shy away from writing about religion as an atheist. Both demand a level of research. Both expose a writer to criticism from greater or more learned minds. It's no doubt obvious at this stage that I'm no Bible scholar. At best I'm an enthusiastic novice. At worst... 

[SPOILER] The Bible features heavily in all three of the Walkin' Trilogy books. It is an important part of the McDermott family. Some characters are happier about that than others. I like to think I treat the subject even-handedly. But I probably don't. If the books contribute to a debate on how writers approach or utilise religion then I don't think that's a bad thing. I'd like to be part of that conversation.


Thank you, David, for addressing my question so seriously and sincerely. Despite your doubts, I'm sure everyone here will agree that it's been a real pleasure having you on The Speculative Scotsman.

Thursday 5 September 2013

Book Review | Your Brother's Blood by David Towsey

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Thomas is thirty-two. He comes from the small town of Barkley. He has a wife there, Sarah, and a child, Mary; good solid names from the Good Book. And he is on his way home from the war, where he has been serving as a conscripted soldier. 

Thomas is also dead - he is one of the Walkin'. 

And Barkley does not suffer the wicked to live.


To believe in something, utterly and unconditionally, even or especially when everything else we understand goes against it, is, I think, a powerful thing.

I often wish I had it in me, that capacity. But a leap is needed — a leap of faith into the great unknown — and I... I like to know where I'm going well before I get there.

The appeal, however, is clear, even to me. Belief begets a sense of purpose in a world that often strikes this critic as poorly plotted. Belief reveals meaning in the seemingly meaningless. Belief changes us; rearranges us; makes us more, ultimately, than we were, or would have been. But with great power comes great responsibility — as a great man mooted a great many years ago — and inasmuch as faith can be freeing, when wielded without kindness or compassion it can, of course, be a weapon as well.

In case you were wondering why I'm banging on about the sensitive subjects above: blame David Towsey's daring debut. Faith is the fire at the beating heart of Your Brother's Blood. It's what sets the small town of Barkley apart in a world that's fallen to fear and loathing. It's what keeps its people decent, centuries on from the dawn of the Walkin'...
Debate continues over the cause of Automated Man's fall from scientific grace. War would be an obvious cause. Regardless of man's level of sophistication, time has proven him to be an aggressive creature. We can only imagine what kind of weapons would have been at his disposal. 
Perhaps man outgrew this world and journeyed to the star? Leaving nothing but scraps — both human and otherwise — behind. Abandoned by science, those remaining lived as best they could, resulting in the societies of today. A neat [...] theory. 
Yet, despite finding no obvious flaw in this hypothesis, my personal preference leans towards another explanation: the resources that fuelled man's domination ran out. 
For all his subtleties, he was finite. It is the pattern of humanity: like the moon, their influence waxes and wanes. Mechaniks, magic, the power to fly, are all hollow trinkets; nothing can escape the pattern. (
In Your Brother's Blood, humanity as you and I understand it is gone, and all but forgotten. Yet the world still turns — and there are still people peppered upon it, albeit not in such numbers. The last of us, for they are thus, have had to go back to basics. The bare necessities are they need, really: food, friendship, protection from the elements, a few rudimentary tools.

And faith. In Barkley especially — an insular community modelled after a man who believed the Walkin' were symptomatic of a second Fall — faith is pervasive. Everyone, but everyone, attends sermons on the Sabbath, to hear Pastor Gray preach about the evils of these others: a belief shared by many beyond Barkley. Here, however, the flock is taught to tar the first-born with the same destructive brush: "The gates of heaven are closed to the kin of those damned souls. They are left to walk the earth; abominations; fouls creatures of the night. Twisted husks: they fester instead of finding eternal joy." (p.7)

In recent years, this cruel and unusual commandment has been enough to keep the Walkin' from coming back to Barkley, yet at the outset of Your Brother's Blood, one man does exactly that. Poor Jared Peekman is promptly burned to death — again — as a mob bays for his blood. The same mob doesn't know how to handle the cold-blooded murder of Jared's seven year old son, whose throat Luke Morris, the Pastor's devoted disciple, simply slits.

Meanwhile, far from home, in a pit of half-burned bodies, Thomas McDermott comes back from the dead. He remembers the end, the bayonet buried to its hilt in his chest... yet here he is. No two ways about it: he's one of the Walkin' now. To wit, his darling daughter Mary may also bear the taint.

A Barkley man born and bred, Thomas's faith is desperately tested by this fate worse than death. "Would there ever be a punishment?" he wonders.
Was there anyone, the Good Lord or otherwise, to judge him and mete it out? Had he done anything wrong? He'd wanted an end to these questions, an end to the uncertainty. To spill [it all] out onto the orange soil at the bottom of the canyon. (pp.46-47)
In the end, Thomas can't bring himself the commit this mortal sin. Instead, he grapples with an impossible choice: to go west or escape into the east. He could return home to Barkley, though he's well aware of what awaits him there — of how his reappearance could endanger his wife and child — or traipse towards the secret Walkin' commune on Black Mountain.

He heads home, of course.

It, uh... doesn't end well.

This is hardly surprising. From word one on, Your Brother's Blood is harrowing, haunting and all too human. Towsey starts his book boldly, with a scorching sermon about the wickedness of the Walkin' presented in canny parallel with Thomas's repugnant reawakening — courtesy a tickling carri-clicky which burrows through him as he claws his way out of a mass grave. It's stomach-churning stuff, one sequence as much as the other. And these awful things are but the beginning.

To be clear, the Walkin' are zombies of a sort, but they aren't interested in brains; they're just dead men that move, have memories and want what they've always wanted. For Thomas, that's first and foremost the safety of Mary and Sarah, however if he's to spend his second life in hiding, he wants to see them one last time. So though his return to Barkley might be misguided, Thomas is so smartly characterised we sympathise entirely.

The supporting cast are more of a mixed bag than our profaned protagonist. Some obvious shorthand — I speak of a peeping Tom, primarily — marks the bad guys from the good. Amongst the latter camp, several seemingly central individuals serve no discernible purpose; a number are marginalised by the narrative; still others are left to languish in the last act. Your Brother's Blood doesn't chronicle an ensemble, either. It's a slight novel, and hardly action-packed.

Much of this, I'm moved to moot, is down to the fact that Your Brother's Blood is but the inaugural volume of The Walkin'. That's all well and good — though the rise of the saga is at times a tiresome trend, I could hardly call myself a genre fiction fan if I weren't willing to forgive the format. Indeed, I'll certainly be reading the next novel in this series, given that Your Brother's Blood affected me, in the main, in much the same way Alden Bell's melancholy debut did... which is to say immensely.

Be that as it may, the decision to close the book on book one when Towsey does left me feeling — I won't beat around the bush here — cheated. But only because I cared so much about Thomas and Mary and Sarah. Only because I had invested heavily in what is from the first a fascinating, emotionally enrapturing narrative, and immersed myself in the pitch-perfect, undead western setting of Your Brother's Blood.

I might be an unbeliever, but I have faith in David Towsey to tell the rest of this tale well. I only wish he'd had the good grace to follow through in more ways than the one he undoubtedly does in this book too. Nevertheless, Your Brother's Blood is a tremendously memorable debut, and a striking start to what promises to be a bloody biblical trilogy.


Your Brother's Blood
by David Towsey

UK Publication: August 2013, Jo Fletcher Books

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