Friday 29 November 2013

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

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

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

To save Russalka, she must become its greatest enemy.


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

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

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

Thursday 28 November 2013

Season's Greetings | Happy Thanksgiving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 25 November 2013

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

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

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


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

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

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

Friday 22 November 2013

Book Review | Still Life by Tim Lebbon

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

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

But in a subjugated population, there is always resistance.

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

But the resistance comes to her for help. 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Still Life
by Tim Lebbon

UK Publication: November 2013, Spectral Press

Buy this book direct
from Spectral Press

Recommended and Related Reading

Thursday 21 November 2013

Cover Identity | Honor Among Thieves

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

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

Wednesday 20 November 2013

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those lengthening paths led me down to Dream London.


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

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

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Book Review | Dream London by Tony Ballantyne

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dream London
by Tony Ballantyne

UK & US Publication: October 2013, Solaris

Buy this book from /
IndieBound / The Book Depository

Recommended and Related Reading

Friday 15 November 2013

Book Review | The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Violent Century
by Lavie Tidhar

UK & US Publication: October 2013, Hodder & Stoughton

Buy this book from /
IndieBound / The Book Depository

Or get the Kindle edition

Recommended and Related Reading

Thursday 14 November 2013

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

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


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

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

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Book Review | Parasite by Mira Grant

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


by Mira Grant

UK & US Publication: October 2013, Orbit

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Monday 11 November 2013

Guest Post | "The Once and Future Dragon" by James Maxey

Last week, the Dragon Apocalypse trilogy by James Maxey — comprising Greatshadow, Hush and Witchbreaker — was released as a DRM-free download. Ever since, several Solaris sorts have been celebrating its long-awaited liberation over on When Gravity Falls by reflecting on their favourite dragons in film and literature.

I figured I'd go one further and ask the man himself how and why dragons came to fascinate him.

Take it away, James!


I’m a little obsessed with dragons. They’ve played major roles in seven of my novels to date, and should you ever visit my house, you’ll find dragons watching over the driveway, climbing on my shelves, and peeking out from among my books. Why do they fascinate me so?

There’s the mythic element, of course. Dragons are found in the legends and artwork of many cultures around the world. They often symbolize nature as the embodiment of storms, oceans, or forests. Even today, who can look at a volcano belching fire and smoke, shaking the earth  with powerful rumbles, and not imagine some great slumbering beast stirring to life?

Of course, in Christian mythology, volcanoes are forever tied to images of Hell, a landscape of flowing lava and unbearable heat, reeking of sulfur. Perhaps this is why Satan himself is portrayed in Revelations as “that old great dragon.” The mythical reptile becomes not just an efficient predator, but the eternal foe of God himself, the avatar of destruction waiting to wipe out all life and goodness.

I play a lot with these ideas in my books. In my dragon apocalypse series, Greatshadow is the living manifestation of all flame. His malignant intelligence spies upon mankind through every candle flame, watching for one moment of carelessness to leap out and devour entire villages. The Church of the Book has decided to rid mankind of Greatshadow’s menace, and assemble a team of twelve powerful warriors to slay the ancient beast once and for all. Among all the carnage that follows once the team begins their quest, I try to explore the larger question of whether the human desire to tame and control nature is always beneficial. Are there times when it’s best to learn to live in harmony with these dangerous forces?

While the symbolic nature of dragons is valuable to me as a writer, I still ponder the universal appeal of dragons. For this, I turn not to myth, but to science. Evolutionary biology has left us with relics of ancestors that have outlived their usefulness, like the goose bumps that rise on our skin when we’re frightened, attempting to bristle fur that we no longer possess. What if some of these relics exist within our brains? Our tiny, tree-dwelling, lemur-like forebears had good reason to be instinctively skittish of a whole range of predators. They had to watch out for large birds swooping down from above, beware of snakes slithering among the branches where they lived, and worry about large cats skulking in the shadows, ready to pounce. Early primates with an inborn fear of hawks, snakes, and tigers had a better chance of passing on their genes than primates without this fear. Is it so odd to think that, millions of years later, our fear of these primeval predators still lurks within us?

If you blend together the wings of an eagle, the scales of a serpent, and the claws and musculature of a lion, you get a creature looking very much like a dragon. They are the sum of our natural predators.

The possibility that dragons have their roots in biological realities raises interesting possibilities. Were there ever creatures that existed in nature that could pass for dragons? Archaeopteryx is a good candidate with its wings, long next, and toothy jaws. Of course, its fearsomeness is somewhat diminished by the fact it was little larger than a blue jay.  Still, there’s no reason to think that a winged creature big enough to qualify as a dragon couldn’t fly. Some fossils of Quetzalcoatlus show that it had a wingspan of fifty feet. Within the relatively short span of time that men have been upon the earth, there have still been birds with wingspans in the twenty feet range. I imagine it would be quite thrilling to look at an animal the size of a small plane soaring overhead, but, alas, large birds went the way of most megafauna, driven to extinction partly by the advance of mankind. But, if our ancestors proved ruthlessly effective at wiping out large animals, modern man is on the verge of bringing some of these lost species back via cloning. It’s not wild fantasy to dream that we’ll one day visit wildlife parks populated by wooly mammoths, Tasmanian tigers, or dodos. 

Some would argue that we shouldn’t play God in resurrecting dead species. But, giving our increasing proficiency at manipulating DNA, I would say the more intriguing question is whether  we should give birth to species that have never before existed. Would it really be so difficult to mix a little goat DNA with a horse and wind up with something very much like a unicorn? Would it be such a stretch to tinker with a turkey until it once more had teeth? The day will come when a kid sitting at a computer will be able to tweak and edit a strand of DNA into all sorts of fantastical creations. Biological printers will be able to assemble the double helix gene by gene. Mankind collectively has contributed to the mass extinction of millions of species. Once we perfect the technology, might we give birth to just as many new species? The days when knights ride out to test their mettle against dragons might not be a vision of our mythic past. It just may be what waits in our future.

(If I may slip in one last shameless plug, the idea that men may one day be the ancestors of dragons is the foundational premise of my Dragon Age fantasy series. The first book, Bitterwood, is now available a free download on Smashwords, Kobo, Amazon, and many other fine ebook outlets. Bitterwood was also recently released in audio format, available from Audible, Amazon, and iTunes.)


Thank you, James, for stopping off at The Speculative Scotsman to talk a bit about your continuing fascination with dragons. I'm entirely glad I asked.

Now why don't you all go read Greatshadow? It's bloody good fun, AND it has dragons.

Friday 8 November 2013

Book Review | Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton

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The monarchies of the Royal Vispasian Union have been bound together for two hundred years by laws maintained and enforced by the powerful Sun Chamber. As a result, nations have flourished but corruption, deprivation and murder will always find a way to thrive...

Receiving news of his father’s death, Sun Chamber Officer Lucan Drakenfeld is recalled home to the ancient city of Tryum and rapidly embroiled in a mystifying case. The King’s sister has been found brutally murdered, her beaten and bloody body discovered in a locked temple. With rumours of dark spirits and political assassination, Drakenfeld has his work cut out for him trying to separate superstition from certainty. His determination to find the killer quickly makes him a target as the underworld gangs of Tryum focus on this new threat to their power.

Embarking on the biggest and most complex investigation of his career, Drakenfeld soon realises the evidence is leading him towards a motive that could ultimately bring darkness to the whole continent. The fate of the nations is in his hands.


Once upon a time, fantasy was fun.

It still has its moments, I suppose, but broadly speaking, these are fewer and farther between in 2013 than in previous years. Though I would argue that it is at or perhaps even past its peak, the mark of grimdark is now embossed upon the genre. Where we used to delight in dreams of dalliances with dragons, our nightmarish narratives now revel in death instead. Today's foremost fantasy tends to traffic in disgust and duplicity rather than the beauty and truth of its youth.

Mark Charan Newton's nostalgic new novel is immensely refreshing in that respect. The several evenings I spent reading it were so perfectly pleasant that I struggle to recall the last fantasy novel I felt such unabashed fondness for.

Don't mistake me: Drakenfeld has its darkness. Its plot revolves around the murder of a royal, and there are several other deaths as it progresses. We witness few of these firsthand, however. Instead we see the scenes of said crimes from a detached detective's perspective — a detective who definitely does not relish the more disturbed elements of his profession. In a nice nod, a number of Drakenfeld's friends ask after this aspect of his character; they wonder, in short, why he is so soft, as if an attraction to violence of the visceral variety should be the norm now.
"Whatever we plan, I'd prefer it if we could keep the killing to a minimum."
"As week a disposition as ever, eh, Drakenfeld?" Callimar chuckled and held his arms wide like a bargaining merchant. "We'll try. But sometimes a little blood is unavoidable." (p.377)
Sometimes, sure. And indeed, Newton's new book is not what you'd call bloodless. But violence, the author argues, isn't the answer to every question.

I say well said.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Who is this character in any case? Well, like his father before him, our protagonist Lucan Drakenfeld is an Officer of the Sun Chamber: an independent organisation which essentially polices the eight nations of Vispasia during an era of peace and prosperity. He and his companion Leana have been occupied on the continent for a period of years when a messenger alerts Drakenfeld to the fact that his father has died of an apparent heart attack.

So home he goes; back to Tryum, ostensibly to attend to Calludian's remaining affairs. Whilst there, though, Drakenfeld becomes convinced that there's more to his father's passing than meets the eye — and as he's considering this quandary, one of the most significant figures in the city is killed. As the only Officer of the Sun Chamber in the area, he's called to the scene immediately... which tells a tall tale if ever there was one, of a murder most mysterious:
"Let me summarise to be clear: around midnight, the king's sister Lacanta was found with her throat cut. The weapon is not here. None of her jewellery has been removed and she has — I will assume for now — not been tampered with. The temple was locked and sealed, and the key left in the door, on the inside. There's no other way into the temple unless one was a god; no way out, apart from through those doors." (pp.66-67)
Nothing about this killing is simple. Still, after a personal plea from the King, who very much misses his sister, Drakenfeld agrees to look into it. In time, his investigations will take him from one side of Tryum to the other, from the slums of poor Plutum to the opulence of Optryx, the rich district. Initially, everyone is a suspect, but eventually Drakenfeld determines that the crime could only have been committed by someone close to the King's sister. By one of the several senators in love with the lovely Lacanta, perhaps, or even — Polla forbid the thought — a member of the remaining Royal family.

If the stakes weren't already great, the longer Drakenfeld spends looking into the locked room mystery that is Lucanta's killing, the bigger the body count becomes. Furthermore, it soon becomes clear that the case could have knock-on consequences for every nation of Vispasia, because about the city there are mutterings "about foreigners, about borders, about the glories of old — and of military expansion." (p.114) There seems a real desire to go to war again — to take territory and glory by force, of course — and unseating someone senior, assuming someone senior needs unseating, is likely to rouse an increasingly republican rabble.

Our man can't afford to concern himself with that — a murderer is a murderer, whatever his or her standing in the public eye — but he will have to tread very carefully indeed. Which brings me to my key complaint about Drakenfeld: Drakenfeld himself. One the one hand, he's a convincing individual: by using his homecoming as an adult to neatly reframe his former feelings for his father and an old flame, Newton develops his character absolutely adequately. Alas, he also comes across as somewhat bumbling, hardly ever evidencing the insidious intelligence requisite for people in his position, such that one wonders how he ever became an Officer of the esteemed Sun Chamber.

That Drakenfeld and the persons of interest he interviews appear unaware of his failings makes this all the more frustrating:
Tomorrow was the Blood Races. Senator Veron had sent a message for me saying that he would meet me in the morning and walk me to the Stadium of Lentus; I realised this would give me the perfect chance to speak to the other senators who were intimate with Lacanta. I would have to think of subtle ways to press them. Certainly, they would fear being quizzed by the Sun Chamber, but I wanted them to think they were not under suspicion so they opened up. (p.268)
I'll only say that these "subtle ways" are hardly Columbo-calibre, yet almost every subject opens up as if they were being interviewed by the great detective himself.

Aside this dissonance, I enjoyed the novel an awful lot. I admired its restraint and appreciated its laid-back pace: it's a slow burner, sure, but when it catches alight, it does burn bright. And though I recall feeling crestfallen upon learning that Drakenfeld would be a mystery, mostly, I'm pleased (and not a little relieved) to report that the secondary world Newton sets said thread against allows for the author to build another of the brilliant cities that have helped make his fantasy fiction distinctive. Tryum's Roman-influenced architecture is splendid, all "colonnades, fountains, market gardens, statues [and] frescoes," (p.23) whilst its cluster of cultures recalls the vibrancy of Villjamur:
Preachers leered or chanted from the relative sanctuary of decorative archways, a dozen dialects rising to my ears, whilst passers-by lit incense to offer to small statues of their gods. The sheer variety of people in Tryum was mesmerising. From clothing to foods to the decorations on clay pots, one could always walk the length of the continent in a single street. (p.28)
Involving as all this is, Drakenfeld's speculative elements are essentially secondary to the murder mystery the novel revolves around; though they add depth and texture to the tale, they have no narrative impact. Which is not to suggest Newton's latest is lacking in that regard. Far from it. But be aware that this series seems more interested in the mundane in the final summation than the magical. Drakenfeld is apt to satisfy Falco fans as much or more than genre fiction devotees like me — and I had a pretty terrific time with it. Like as not, you'll find lots to like too.


by Mark Charan Newton

UK Publication: October 2013, Tor

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Thursday 7 November 2013

The Scotsman Abroad | On Graham Joyce

Yesterday I received an email that brought both my partner and I to an absolute standstill.

We've both been reading Graham Joyce for years, you see; Memoirs of a Master Forger was my first of his works, whilst the other half has had a passion for his ghostly prose since The Silent Land. Invariably, one of us will manage to bagsy his new book before the other does, such that it's become something of a game between us.

So the news that he has cancer, that he nearly died six months or so ago... let's say it cast a dark cloud over the remains of the day. Per the press release I received:
Graham Joyce received a standing ovation at the 1,000-strong awards ceremony of the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton on Sunday 2nd November 2013. Picking up the Best Fantasy Novel Award for an unprecedented sixth time in his career, Joyce was earlier this year diagnosed with aggressive lymphoma cancer. The event marked his first public appearance since his diagnosis.
Joyce won the Best Fantasy Novel Award for Some Kind Of Fairy Tale, a story in which a young girl thought to have been abducted from the woodlands of the East Midlands returns to her family after twenty years. 
Six months ago Joyce had the experience of being revived by an emergency resuscitation team at the Leicester Royal Infirmary. Joyce said, “Just being able to stand here today is a wonderful award, thanks to the doctors and nurses of the NHS.”
Inadequate as it is, I can only express how happy I am that the doctors and nurses of the NHS managed to bring the man back, and how sorely I hope that he has many more years of good health ahead.

In any event, I've seen a fair few folks express curiosity about his work since the bad news broke, and I'd love for them to discover him as the other half and I have, so I thought I'd gather together links to the reviews I've written of his books.

Here's what I had to say about The Silent Land.

Here are my thoughts on the book he won the Best Fantasy Novel Award at the weekend for.

And to top it all off, my most recent article for Strange Horizons was a glowing review of his new novel, The Year of the Ladybird:
Almost forty years on, the scorching summer of 1976 is remembered by many; however the relative tenor of the tale depends upon the perspective of the teller, very much in the mode of local legend. Some speak of it as a bastion of all that is great about Britain... or all that was, once. Others recall the summer as a season of suffering; of water shortages, hellish heat, economic depression, and — what with the National Front nearing the peak of its power — political volatility. 
Each of these ideas has a part to play in Graham Joyce's new novel, but like the infamous insect invasion The Year of the Ladybird takes its evocative title from, they're in the background, by and large, adding if not narrative impact then immersive depth and telling texture to the text's redolent setting: a ramshackle holiday resort in a nation coming of age just as our protagonist David Barwise does over the course of this slight but delightful ghost story.
Graham Joyce is, in short, an awesome author: if you've been on the fence about his fiction, get the hell off it.

My thoughts, and my partner's, will be with him and his during this difficult time.

Monday 4 November 2013

Book Review | Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

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In May 1980, 15-year-old Oscar Drai suddenly vanishes from his boarding school in the old quarter of Barcelona. For seven days and nights no one knows his whereabouts...

His story begins in the heart of old Barcelona, when he meets Marina and her father German Blau, a portrait painter. Marina takes Oscar to a cemetery to watch a macabre ritual that occurs on the fourth Sunday of each month. At 10 a.m. precisely a coach pulled by black horses appears. From it descends a woman dressed in black, her face shrouded, wearing gloves, holding a single rose. She walks over to a gravestone that bears no name, only the mysterious emblem of a black butterfly with open wings.

When Oscar and Marina decide to follow her they begin a journey that will take them to the heights of a forgotten, post-war Barcelona, a world of aristocrats and actresses, inventors and tycoons; and a dark secret that lies waiting in the mysterious labyrinth beneath the city streets.


Upon its original publication, The Shadow of the Wind was something of a sensation in Spain, and again times ten — thanks in no small part to Lucia Graves' great translation — when it was let loose in the West damn near a decade ago.

Sadly, the going's been ever so slow as regards new novels by Carlos Ruiz Zafón since. There was The Angel's Game in 2009 — a bit of a disappointment, if I'm honest — and in 2012, The Prisoner of Heaven: a worthy sequel to The Shadow of the Wind, if not necessarily an equal. Be that as it may, I can hardly wait to read the concluding volume of the Cemetery cycle... but I'm going to have to, aren't I?

In the meantime, there's been plenty to keep Zafón's army of fans happy, because between these releases, Lucia Graves has been working her way through the novels the master of post-modern melodrama made his name with in the nineties: a series of four young adult fantasies beginning with The Prince of Mist — a pleasant if forgettable blip of a book — and concluding, this year, with Marina.

Set in the late 1970s in beautiful, byzantine Barcelona — an enchanted city wherein "time and memory, history and fiction merged [...] like watercolours in the rain" (p.5) — Marina tells the tale of Oscar Drai's missing days. "Then a fifteen-year-old boy languishing in a boarding school named after some half-forgotten saint," (p.5) at the outset Oscar meets a secretive girl called Marina and her ailing father, Germán. They become fast friends... though, you know, only on the down low:
Without knowing quite why, I kept the friendship hidden. I hadn't told anyone about them, not even my friend JF. In just a few weeks Germán and Marina had become my secret life and in all honesty the only life I wished to live. I remember the time when Germán went to bed early, excusing himself as usual with the impeccably manners of an old-fashioned gentleman. I was left alone with Marina in the room with the portraits. She smiled enigmatically. (pp.70-71)
As it happens, she has a habit of doing that; that and many other mysterious things. She has a secret, you see — several, strictly speaking — and one day she clues Oscar in on the gothic plot Zafón's novel revolves around. It begins at the Sarria cemetery, one of Barcelona's best-hidden spots:
If you look for it on the map, you won't find it. If you ask locals or taxi drivers how to get there, they probably won't know, although they'll have heard all about it. And if, by chance, you try to look for it on your own, you're more likely than not to get lost. The lucky few who know the secret of its whereabouts suspect that this old graveyard is in fact an island lost in the ocean of the past, which appears and disappears at random. 
This was the setting to which Marina let me that Sunday in September, to reveal a mystery that intrigued me almost as much as she did. (p.29)
To be sure, I was taken in too, for from their vantage point, Oscar and Marina watch a hooded woman pray before a grave unmarked excepting a simple symbol: a black butterfly with open wings. Perplexed, our intrepid adventurers stick their noses in still further, and resolve to follow the hooded woman home. When she disappears into an overgrown greenhouse, they head in unhesitating — and that's where the innocent fun finishes, because deep in the greenhouse, Oscar and Marina find an entrance to a subterranean inner sanctum of sorts, where they discover an obscenely creepy collection of dolls along with a macabre photo album depicting "innocent souls imprisoned within bodies that were horribly deformed." (p.41)

Intriguing, indeed. Alas, the mystery doesn't last. Marina may be the finest of Zafón's four young adult fantasies —  it is certainly the most reminiscent of the territory the author went on to explore in the Cemetery cycle — but it, too, has significant issues. Foremost among them, by far, is this; the end result of which is, I'm sorry to say, some faux-Phantom of the Opera nonsense. To make matters worse, Marina's riddles are revealed piecemeal by way of a series of increasingly convoluted monologues, for instance the following:
"All the former members of the Velo-Granell executive board met their deaths, theoretically of natural causes. Heart attack was the doctor's diagnosis in most of the cases. One of them drown in his own swimming pool. The body was still holding a gun when they fished him out. For the rest the circumstances were similar. They'd been alone in their beds; it was always at midnight; and they were all found in process of dragging themselves across the floor... trying to flee from a death that left no trace. All except Benjamín Sentís." (p.158-159)
Markedly more satisfying than the central mystery of Marina are the relationships between Oscar and Marina, Marina and her father, even Marina's father and our able narrator. A piquant combination of sweetness and silliness and sadness elevates their early interactions above and beyond the norm. Unfortunately, these too take a backseat when the twisted riddle begins to unravel, though the very last chapters represent something of a saving grace.

Marina's primary problem is far from fundamental, but it does undoubtedly take the edge off a novel I was looking forward to recommending unreservedly as far as two thirds through. As is, Marina might be slightly more satisfying than Carlos Ruiz Zafon's other young adult fantasies — a largely lacklustre bunch — but in the final summation it falls short of the promise of its premise and an absolutely fantastic first act.


by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

UK Publication: September 2013, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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