Friday 28 February 2014

Book Review | Babayaga by Toby Barlow

From the author of Sharp Teeth comes a novel of postwar Paris, of star-crossed love and Cold War espionage, of bloodthirsty witches and a police inspector turned into a flea... and that's just for starters! 

Toby Barlow's marvellous Babayaga may begin as little more than a love-letter to the City of Light, but it quickly grows into a daring, moving exploration of love, mortality, and responsibility.


Once upon a time, I went to Paris, France. I confess I expected it to be something special—a romantic getaway I'd remember forever—but to my dismay, what I found was a pretty city, and while I won't go so far as to say cities are all basically the same these days, they are (in my European experience at least) interchangeable in various ways.

In Babayaga, Toby Barlow peels away the years to reveal a markedly more appealing period, when people and places, ideas and indeed dreams, developed independently:
This city, it's been the eye of the hurricane for centuries, a firestorm of ideals, art, and philosophy, a place where fierce arguments became actual revolutions, which then exploded into bloody wars. Think about all that happened here, Pascal, Descartes, Voltaire, Napoleon, the barricades of the commune. This was it, the glistening pearl resting at the center of a grand transcendent battle for mankind's soul. [...] But now it's all over. (p.378)
Over, or almost—like Will van Wyck's sojourn in postwar Paris, where he's found some success at an advertising agency with ties to the intelligence sector. Alas, his client base has practically collapsed: his CIA liaison has better things to do, to be sure, and once the clown Guizot goes, Will will have nothing left to keep him here. He hardly relishes the prospect of returning home to the devastation of Detroit; in fact "he had thoroughly enjoyed, savoured and celebrated every single day he had spent in this city," (p.16-17) but when the time comes, what's to be done?

Why, become entangled in a complex Cold War plot involving a fellow ex-pat! Oliver is the editor of a struggling literary journal modelled on The Paris Review who goes above and beyond as a talkative operative caught up in altogether too many madcap shenanigans.

In the midst of these marvellous mishaps, our everyman falls for a beautiful young woman on the run from the crazy old lady she came to the country with. Elga is hell bent on destroying Zoya... and she could do it, too. After all, the two women are witches—if not of the sort we've become familiar with in our fantastic fiction...

Wednesday 26 February 2014

Book Review | Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Boy Novak turns twenty and decides to try for a brand-new life. Flax Hill, Massachusetts, isn’t exactly a welcoming town, but it does have the virtue of being the last stop on the bus route she took from New York. Flax Hill is also the hometown of Arturo Whitman—craftsman, widower, and father of Snow.

Snow is mild-mannered, radiant and deeply cherished—exactly the sort of little girl Boy never was, and Boy is utterly beguiled by her. If Snow displays a certain inscrutability at times, that’s simply a characteristic she shares with her father, harmless until Boy gives birth to Snow’s sister, Bird.

When Bird is born, Boy is forced to re-evaluate the image Arturo’s family have presented to her, and Boy, Snow and Bird are broken apart.


As Granta magazine allowed last year, Helen Oyeyemi is unquestionably one of the best young British novelists in the business, and though her fiction is largely literary, she’s ever evidenced an interest in speculative elements. From the haunted house in White is for Witching to the magical realism of Mr Fox, Oyeyemi has incorporated her fascination with the fantastic into every novel to bear her name to date—up to and including her new book, Boy, Snow, Bird. Here, however, the uncanny is arrived at through character rather than narrative.

Boy, to begin with, is not your average protagonist. First things first: she’s a girl, born and raised in the Big Apple by her papa—or the rat catcher, as Boy calls him. He has “the cleanest hands you’ll ever see in your life. He’ll punch you in the kidneys, from behind, or he’ll thump the back of your head and walk away sniggering while you crawl around on the floor, stunned.” (p.6) Boy does her best to suffer the rat catcher’s casual violence in silence, but in time the usual abuse takes on a distressing tenor.

The unpredictability of his fist didn’t mean he was crazy. Far from it. Sometimes he got awfully drunk, but never to a point where he didn’t seem to know what he was doing. He was trying to train me. To do what, I don’t know. I never found out, because I ran away almost as soon as I turned twenty. (p.8)
The folks of Flax Hill, Massachusetts don’t go out of their way to welcome our girl into their tiny town, but Boy is undeterred by the cold shoulder they show her:

I found it easy to disregard the suggestion that I didn’t belong in Flax Hill. The town woke something like a genetic memory in me... after a couple of weeks, the air tasted right. To be more specific, the town took on a strong flavour of palinka, that fiery liquor I used to sneak capfuls of whenever the rat catcher forgot to keep it under lock and key. But now, here, clear smoke rose from my soul every time I breathed in. A taste of the old country. Of course I knew better than to mention this to anybody. (pp.23-24)
Little by little, Boy wins the locals over. She makes a forever friend in Mia, the resident reporter, through whom she’s introduced to Arturo: a wayward widower with a gorgeous daughter. Snow is “an extraordinary-looking kid. A medieval swan maiden, only with the darkest hair and the pinkest lips, every shade at its utmost. She was like a girl in a Technicolour tapestry,” (p.78) and though Boy eventually develop feelings for her father, she falls for the girl first.

Monday 24 February 2014

Coming Attractions | Speculative Fiction 2013

Indulge me a moment, dear readers.

Seeing my work alongside articles by the awesome authors and brilliant bloggers showcased in Speculative Fiction 2012 was a point of proper pride for me last year. Leafing through the contributor's copy I got—or maybe it was one of the ones I bought—I'm no less proud now.

More importantly for me, at least, the anthology legitimised, in others' eyes, what I spend my days and nights doing. No matter how many times I told my Mum what I was up to, it wasn't till she saw my name on a printed page that she realised I might not be the good-for-nothing lump she had imagined. I admit I may be overstating her former fears about me, but it's true, to be sure, that she's crowed about the book pretty much continuously since. Whenever I visit, she calls me her "writer in residence." 

An endlessly embarrassing business. But also... well. A little lovely.

It dawned on me this morning that there'll be no stopping her now. After all, the most estimable editors of the next iteration of the anthology recently revealed the cover of Speculative Fiction 2013, designed—as was the last one—by Sarah Anne Langton.

Our friendly neighborhood Book Smugglers, Ana Grilo and Thea James, who took the baton from last year's terrific team, also unveiled a list of contributors. The lineup this time around includes, but is not limited to:
Abigail Nussbaum, Aidan Moher, Alasdair Czyrnyj, Aliette de Bodard, Alyssa Franke, Amal El-Mohtar, Ana Silva, Ann Leckie, Annalee Newitz, Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, Carrie Sessarego, Chaila, Cheryl Morgan, Chiusse, Chris Gerwel, Diane Dooley, E.M. Kokie, Emily Asher-Perrin, Erin Hoffman, Foz Meadows, Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, Jared Shurin, Jemmy, Jenny Kristine, Jim C. Hines, Joe Abercrombie, Jonathan McCalmont, Justin Landon, Kameron Hurley, Karyn Silverman, Kate Elliott, Leow Hui Min Annabeth, Liz Bourke, Mahvesh Murad, Matt Hilliard, Miguel Rodriguez, N.K. Jemisin, Natalie Luhrs, Niall Alexander, Nina Allan, Orem Chiel, Paul (Sparky), Phoebe North, Renay, Robert Berg, Sam Keeper, Sayantani DasGupta, Shaun Duke, Sophia McDougall, Stefan Raets and Tansy Rayner Roberts.
I was totally going to tell you which article Ana and Thea picked to represent my writing through 2013... before I realised how much more fun it'd be to let you guess.

I'll say that it's a review—which will surprise no-one, of course; by and large, for good or for ill, that's what I do these days—but also that it's a piece I'm particularly proud of. I'm doubly pleased to see a pair of my peers agree.

Time to post this puppy, but before I go, know that Speculative Fiction 2013 will be released in April. The listings aren't live on Amazon as yet, but as and when you're able to place your orders, remember that all the profits will be donated, as they were last year, to Room to Read: an awesome cause on top of the progressive premise this annual anthology evidences in any event.

Friday 21 February 2014

Book Review | The Troop by Nick Cutter

It begins like a campfire story: five boys and a grownup went into the woods...

It will end in madness and murder. And worse...

Once a year, scoutmaster Tim Riggs leads a troop of boys into the Canadian wilderness for a three-day camping trip—a tradition as comforting and reliable as a good ghost story and a roaring bonfire. But when an unexpected intruder stumbles upon their campsite—shockingly thin, disturbingly pale, and voraciously hungry—Tim and the boys are exposed to something far more frightening than any tale of terror. The human carrier of a bioengineered nightmare. An inexplicable horror that spreads faster than fear. A harrowing struggle for survival that will pit the troop against the elements, the infected... and one another.

Part Lord of the Flies, part 28 Days Later—and all-consuming—this tightly written, edge-of-your-seat thriller will take readers deep into the heart of darkness and close to the edge of sanity.


Imagine how different the world would look if a real diet pill existed; if losing weight was a simple sugar solution away. Think for a minute about how dramatically that would change the day to day. It'd be revolutionary, in truth. And it would make certain people very rich indeed.

Dr. Clive Edgerton, for one, isn't in it for the money. It's the science that interests him: the science, in this instance, of adapting a hydatid for use in human hosts. Awful as the thought is, a tapeworm which could be introduced to our systems with one pill and passed after another—once it had done its dirty work—would be a great breakthrough... one the determined doctor is on the very precipice of making.

He's ready, if you can credit it, to start testing Thestomax in earnest: a fascinating narrative strand that The Troop simply isn't interested in. Instead, Nick Cutter—"a pseudonym for an acclaimed [Canadian] author of novels and short stories," per the press release I received—dubs Edgerton "Dr. Death" and treats his quest as the premise for an absorbing, albeit appalling body horror novel that reads like The Lord of the Flies meets Mira Grant's Parasite.

Monday 17 February 2014

Book Review | Astra by Naomi Foyle

Like every child in Is-Land, Astra Ordott is looking forward to her Security Shot so she can one day do her IMBOD Service and help defend her Gaian homeland from Non-Lander infiltrators. Then one of Astra's Shelter mothers, the formidable Dr Hokma Blesser, warns her that the shot will limit her chances of being a famous scientist—or helping raise the mysterious data-messenger Owleons that Hokma breeds—and Astra reluctantly agrees to deceive the Is-Land authorities and all her family and friends in Or.

Astra grows up increasingly conscious of the differences between her and the other Or-kids—then Lil, an orphaned wild child of the forest, appears in Or and at least she has someone exciting to play with. But Lil's father has taught her some alarming ideas about the world, and Astra is about to learn some devastating truths about Is-Land, Non-Land, the Owleons, and the complex web of adult relationships that surrounds her.


They may be few and far between in the grander scheme, but in the world today there are plenty of places where people live in harmony with the environment, raising families and farming the land without ravaging the planet in the process.

Considering the fossil fuel problem and encroaching crises like overpopulation and climate change, these caring, carbon neutral communities should stand as examples—as promises of what's possible—but more often than not they serve solely as sources of small-minded mockery:
At best, people saw Gaians as cranks, living in a precious little world of our own, sewing our own clothes, home-schooling our children, milking goats. Most people didn't understand the urgent necessity of our way of life. Most people were racing headlong into the Dark Time, their vision of life on earth smeared blind by oil. (p.130)
Naomi Foyle's second novel is set some decades on from an environmental catastrophe which left the surface of the Earth largely "barren [and] volcanic," (p.131) and much as I'd like to say everything changed in the aftermath of the Great Collapse, many people remain set in their ways, however unsustainable. Is-Land, on the other hand—a cooperative country formed by the Council of the New Continents after this terrible tragedy—has seen its membership multiply.

But that's made it a target, hasn't it? And of rather more than ridicule, because there are those nearby nations who want what Is-Land's got, including "crops that will grow and thrive in the unpredictable ecologies of the Regeneration Era [...] cacti bursting with biofortified milk for desert nomads to sow" (p.58) and so on.
Even the lowest-ranking IMBOD officer knew that the safety of Is-Land's greatest treasure could never be taken for granted. Somewhere beyond the faint blue horizon was the Boundary, and pressed up behind it the squalid Southern Belt. There, despite decades of efforts to evict them, hundreds of thousands of Non-Landers still festered, scheming to overrun Is-Land and murder any Gaian who stood in their way. Nowhere was safe. (p.6)
For the foreseeable a period of peace is in place, but come what may, there will be war, and this time, Is-Land intends to be ready to fight for its rights. To that end its finest scientists have developed the Security Serum: a cocktail of hand-crafted Code meant to render its recipients the best soldiers they could conceivably be.

Friday 14 February 2014

Book Review | The Martian by Andy Weir

I'm stranded on Mars.

I have no way to communicate with Earth.

I'm in a Habitat designed to last 31 days.

If the Oxygenator breaks down, I'll suffocate. If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I'll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I'll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I'll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

So yeah. I'm screwed.


We all have our dreams and desires.... or we all had them. How sad!

Andy Weir, at least, did something with his. Fascinated by space exploration from an early age, "like most kids growing up [he] wanted to be an astronaut. Instead, he wrote a book—The Martian—which he self published on Amazon in 2012."

By all accounts, it went down very well, in the wake of which overwhelmingly positive and in all probability profitable response, an assortment of proper publishers came a-calling. The result is a novel with problematic priorities that begs for the suggestions of a determined editor. That it is a gripping and largely satisfying text nevertheless speaks to how marvellous The Martian might have been.

The book is about no more and no less than a man left to die on Mars. Potty-mouthed botanist Mark Watney is far from the first fellow to travel to the red planet — as a crewmember of Ares 3 he's the fourteenth, in fact, to set foot on its soil — but he's certainly the first man to be stranded there, abandoned there. A series of unfortunate events just "six days into what should be the greatest two months of [his] life" (p.1) leave our hero alone in the absolute dark of the stars, and struggling to survive.

After a critical equipment failure and the evident death of one of their number, the other astronauts of Ares 3 have no choice but to hightail it home, unaware that Mark is still alive... however he won't be for long if Mars has its uncaring way. All our man has is two rovers, a prefab hab and a small container of potatoes, plus the promise of Ares 4's arrival in four years or so—assuming the tragedy of his apparent passing hasn't completely derailed NASA's provisional plans for the program.

He doesn't, however, have enough food to last him a single Martian year, far less four, and his existence, in the interim, is entirely dependent on disposable equipment: air regulators and water reclaimers meant to function for a few months at most. He has no conceivable way of communicating with anyone either, and even if he had, help is an impossibly long way away. Mark Watney is on his lonesome, ladies and gentlemen, and he has his work cut out, no doubt.

Thursday 13 February 2014

Cover Identity | Edward Miller's Mieville

As longtime readers of The Speculative Scotsman will be well aware, China Mieville is one of my very favourite authors, and The Scar is far and away my favourite of his exquisite fictions. But there was a time when I hadn't a clue that this book existed—that this was an author I'd be interested in.

I still remember the moment I became aware of both.

It was 2002. I was eighteen years old. Coraline was on the cusp of coming out and I'd gallavanted to Glasgow to hear Neil Gaiman read a bit of his new book. The event was held in Ottakars, as I recall. I miss Ottakars...

Anyway, whilst waiting in line to meet the man, I spent quite a bit of time admiring the Science Fiction & Fantasy section of the store. Mostly I could see spines, but a few of the books were faced out, the better to attract the attention of eejits like me.

My eye was drawn to a little book called Perdido Street Station in particular. The cover art was extraordinary, I thought. Weird and wonderful. That said, even then I knew not to judge a book by its cover, so I made a mental note to read a bit about the book when I could.

Weeks passed—months, even—before I took the plunge and bought a copy alongside what has become one of my most prized possessions: a first edition hardcover of The Scar. Both books had incredible covers by a man called Edward Miller (aka Les Edwards), and if I'm honest, I don't know that I'd have discovered China Mieville—certainly not so early on—were it not for his lavish art.

Tor have long since dispensed with Miller's services, I'm sorry to say, in favour of the icons that adorn the award-winning author's back catalogue today. But whilst researching some stories for this week's edition of the British Genre Fiction Focus, I came across a blog called Out There Books, and on that blog, a post about the Czech cover art of Mieville's ten texts to date. 

Evidently, Edward Miller has been keeping busy. Feast your eyes on these, readers!

A thousand thanks to Tom for alerting me to these Mieville-related paintings. They've made me a very happy man... albeit rather nostalgic.

Oh, the good old days, eh? 

Monday 10 February 2014

Book Review | A Different Kingdom by Paul Kearney

Michael Fay is a normal boy, living with his grandparents on their family farm in rural Ireland. In the woods—once thought safe and well-explored—there are wolves; and other, stranger things. He keeps them from his family, even his Aunt Rose, his closest friend, until the day he finds himself in the Other Place. There are wild people, and terrible monsters, and a girl called Cat. 

When the wolves follow him from the Other Place to his family’s doorstep, Michael must choose between locking the doors and looking away—or following Cat on an adventure that may take an entire lifetime in the Other Place. He will become a man, a warrior, and confront the Devil himself: the terrible Dark Horseman...


If you go down to the woods today, be sure of a big surprise... but I dare say it won't be bears. And that's assuming there are even woods within reach of you.

Where I live, I'm lucky. I have natural landscape to the left of me, supermarkets and the like to the right: the conveniences of 21st century living combined with the beauty of the world as it once was. But so many places today have no balance. Particularly in cities we have systematically stamped out the environment to make more room for humanity to do what humanity does: taint everything it touches.

Young Michael Fay, a boy about to become a man in rural Ireland sixty or so years ago, has been aware of this fact most foul ever since his parents passed:
He lives amid the acres his family has occupied for generations. They have multiplied through the years, growing from a single unit into a clan, a tribe. Sons have built houses and scraped together farms in their fathers' shadows. Daughters have married neighbours. Exiles have been and gone, have sailed away and returned to where they were born. His family has roots here as old as the hill fort nestled on the highest of the pastures. They have possess the land, raped it, nurtured it, cursed it and been enslaved by it.
His parents have been killed by it. He was orphaned by a bomb meant for someone else. (p.12)
In their place, Michael is raised by his grandparents, however he finds more in the mode of closeness with his Aunt Rose. Ten years his senior, she's like a big sister to our man in the making, but also a little like a lover, so when she's bundled away by scandalised nuns, only to die giving birth to her baby—gone beyond "like a letter lost in the post" (p.61)—the poor dear is devastated.

Years later, Michael's isolation grows greater when his teachers turn to despair over his behaviour. His abiding love of the land leads him to seek solace in the forest, where he haunts a special spot. Playing there one day, he sees something unbelievable. There are wolves in the woods!

Wolves and weirder: men with fox faces...

Friday 7 February 2014

Giving the Game Away | The Gospel of Loki Blog Tour

Today on The Speculative Scotsman, in celebration of the imminent publication of Joanne M. Harris’s first epic adult fantasy novel, The Gospel of Loki—a fantastic first-person narrative of the rise and fall of the Norse gods retold from the inimitable perspective of the world's most terrific trickster—it's my pleasure to play host to the #AskLoki Blog Tour, in which Gollancz and a collection of Britain's best and brightest book bloggers have teamed up to give you a glimpse into the life of Loki... specifically his opinions of the other inhabitants of Aesgard.

If this knowledge isn't enough, rest assured that there are goodies too: we’ll also be sharing ten—count 'em, ten—Gospel of Loki gift bags complete with signed books, tote bags, bookmarks and posters, of course, of that gorgeous cover art.

To stand a chance of winning one of the goodie bags, just tweet the correct answer to the question below to @Joanne_chocolat @gollancz and @niallalot, being sure to include the hashtag #AskLoki.

To today's question then...

Loki describes this goddess as “possibly
the most annoying woman in the
whole of the Nine Worlds.”

Is he talking about:
1) Sigyn 2) Freya 3) Frigg

If you need a refresher on the trickster god’s opinion of the characters that you’ll meet in The Gospel of Loki when it's released on February 13th, visit

One lucky tweeter will be picked at random each day from the 3rd to the 14th of February, giving you ten opportunities to score in total—so if today isn't your lucky day, follow along with the #AskLoki Blog Tour at the blogs on the above banner for five more chances to win a gift bag.

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Book Review | Chiliad: A Meditation by Clive Barker

Welcome to the world of Chiliad, an astonishing two-part novella by the incomparable Clive Barker. A brilliantly composed narrative filled with unforgettable images, this visionary meditation on time, history, and human suffering is surely one of Barker's most distinctive — and distinguished — creations.

Chiliad consists of two interrelated stories, stories filtered through the melancholy imagination of a narrator perched on the banks of a river that flows backward and forward through time. The first movement, 'Men and Sin,' takes place in the millennial year of 1000 AD. The second, 'A Moment at the River s Heart,' occurs exactly one thousand years — the length of a 'chiliad' — later, as the new millennium approaches. At the heart of these stories are two savage, seemingly inexplicable atrocities, each of which reaches across the centuries to reflect and connect with the other. As the narratives unfold and time becomes increasingly permeable, Barker creates a dark, sorrowful portrait of the ancient human capacity for cruelty and destruction. Writing always with lucidity and grace, he addresses a host of universal concerns, among them the power of guilt and grief, and the need to find signs of meaning in the chaos that surrounds us. In the process, he examines the endless chain of consequences that inevitably proceed from a single act of violence.

At once hugely expansive and deeply personal, Chiliad is a compact masterpiece, a resonant reminder of Barker's ability to create fictional worlds that enrich and illuminate our own.


For more than twenty years, Clive Barker was terrifically prolific. During that period, a year without a new novel by the author seemed—to me at least—incomplete. Sadly, when Barker started work on the Abarat, that was that. Since the first part of the series was released in 2002 we've seen, for various reasons, just two sequels and one short novel in the form of Mister B. Gone

That may change in 2015 with the belated publication of The Scarlet Gospels: a return to Barker's beginnings by many measures. A sequel, indeed, to one of his very earliest novellas—no less than The Hellbound Heart, which found fame later when it became the basis of the film Hellraiser. Before that, though... this: an amoral meditation on humanity's spiralling history of violence which certainly whet my appetite for more from the man who helped define dark fantasy.

Chiliad, to be sure, is neither a novel nor new. Rather, it is an arrangement of two tales intertwined with a maudlin metatext about an author who has lost his voice, and though its relevance today remains great, both 'Men and Sin' and 'A Moment at the River's Heart' were previously published in Revelations, the Douglas E. Winter-edited anthology of short stories intended to celebrate the millennium.

That said, the overarching narrative seems particularly prescient here, at this point in Barker's career. We find our unnamed narrator mid mid-life crisis, having forsaken all his old haunts and habits because of a bone-deep despair; a hateful malaise that says, to paraphrase: all he had in his life, and all he had sought to make, was worthless.

But at the river, things are different.