Tuesday 26 August 2014

Book Review | The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs

In the contested and unexplored territories at the edge of the Empire, a boat is making its laborious way upstream. Riding along the banks are the mercenaries hired to protect it—from raiders, bandits and, most of all, the stretchers, elf-like natives who kill any intruders into their territory. The mercenaries know this is dangerous, deadly work. But it is what they do.

In the boat the drunk governor of the territories and his sons and daughters make merry. They believe that their status makes them untouchable. They are wrong. And with them is a mysterious, beautiful young woman, who is the key to peace between warring nations and survival for the Empire. When a callow mercenary saves the life of the Governor on an ill-fated hunting party, the two groups are thrown together.

For Fisk and Shoe—two tough, honourable mercenaries surrounded by corruption, who know they can always and only rely on each other—their young companion appears to be playing with fire. The nobles have the power, and crossing them is always risky.

And although love is a wonderful thing, sometimes the best decision is to walk away. Because no matter how untouchable or deadly you may be, the stretchers have other plans.


A grimdark fantasy about mercenaries protecting precious cargo as it's transported through treacherous territory, The Incorruptibles gives Red Country a run for its money, if not its funny, but what sets it apart from Joe Abercrombie's wild west diversion is its unexpected perspective.

Fisk and Shoe have been partners in crime for a lifetime. One is a pious man, the other "damned as surely as the sun rises." Why? Because "he loves the Hellfire. He loves his gun. He's a hard, unyielding man, with a long memory and impervious to regret. But there's kindness, too, under all that." (p.67) Sounds like an anti-hero to me!

Surprisingly, John Hornor Jacobs' new novel is more interested in the man of God—or rather Ia—than it is in the man of action I expected to find front and centre of the alt historical events The Incorruptibles documents.

Friday 22 August 2014

Book Review | Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Tsukuru Tazaki had four best friends at school. By chance all of their names contained a colour. The two boys were called Akamatsu, meaning 'red pine', and Oumi, 'blue sea', while the girls' names were Shirane, 'white root', and Kurono, 'black field'. Tazaki was the only last name with no colour in it.

One day Tsukuru Tazaki's friends announced that they didn't want to see him, or talk to him, ever again.

Since that day Tsukuru has been floating through life, unable to form intimate connections with anyone. But then he meets Sara, who tells him that the time has come to find out what happened all those years ago.


"From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying." (p.1)

So begins Haruki Murkami's first novel since the bloat of the book many expected to be his magnum opus. Happily, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is essentially the inverse of IQ84. It's short and sweet where that last was extended in its dejection; gently suggestive rather than frustratingly overbearing; and though the ending is a bit of bait and switch, it's one which feels fitting, unlike IQ84's dubious denouement.

If you were worried, as I was, that Murakami may have had his day, then rest assured: his new novel represents a timely reminder of the reasons you fell for his fiction in the first place.

As with almost every book to bear the international bestseller's brand, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage immerses readers in the mindset of a single, emotionally crippled character; a man approaching middle age, in this case, whose major malfunction is made plain from the first page, as he reflects on his lowest moments:
There was an actual event that had led him to this place—this he knew all too well—but why should death have such a hold on him, enveloping him in its embrace for nearly half a year? Envelop—the word expressed it precisely. Like Jonah in the belly of the whale, Tsukuru had fallen into the bowels of death, one untold day after another, lost in a dark, stagnant void. (p.2)
But before this death, this darkness... life, and light. Light composed of the colours of his four best friends, with whom his life was intimately intertwined:
The two boys' last names were Akamatsu—which means 'red pine'—and Oumi—'blue sea'; the girls' family names were Shirane—'white root'—and Kurono—'black field'. Tazaki was the only last name that did not have a color in its meaning. From the very beginning this made his feel a little bit left out. (p.6) 
Not half as left out as he felt when, one day, they "announced that they did not want to see him, or talk with him, ever again. It was a sudden, decisive declaration, with no room for compromise. They gave no explanation, not a word, for this harsh pronouncement. And Tsukuru didn't dare ask." (p.3)

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage takes place decades after this rejection.

Thursday 21 August 2014

The Scotsman Abroad | Gone Goodreading

I'm sure this sounds counter-intuitive coming from a blogger, but social media and me, we... we have a somewhat strained relationship. It's true that I tweet; it's true, too, that that's been as much as I can manage—and sometimes, I'm crap at managing that. I'll either be tweeting all the time or not at all.

I'm just bad at balance.

Over the years, though, I've come to realise that community is crucial. Especially for a blogger based somewhere as out there—relative to the likes of London—as the boondocks of Scotland. So a week or so ago, an invite inspired me to give in to Goodreads. I signed up for an account, sent a few (hundred) friend requests and set about filling a bookshelf or two.

To my surprise, it's been a bunch of fun so far. I particularly enjoy having a place to put my immediate reactions to texts as they develop, and I figured a few of you might do too. So if you're interested in reading my ramblings about the books I'm reading right now—books you won't see reviews of on The Speculative Scotsman for some time, typically—feel free to friend me, folks: on Goodreads, or indeed on Twitter, Xbox Live, PSN, Steam and so on.

My username is always niallalot.

Perhaps one day I'll tell you why...

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Book Review | Breakfast with the Borgias by DBC Pierre

The setting: a faded, lonely guesthouse on the Essex coast. Outside, it's dark, and very foggy. Inside there's no phone or internet reception, no connection with the outside world.

Enter Ariel Panek, a promising young academic en route from the USA to an important convention in Amsterdam. With his plane grounded by fog at Stanstead, he has been booked in for the night at the guesthouse. Discombobulated and jetlagged, he falls in with a family who appear to be commemorating an event.

But this is no ordinary celebration. And this is no ordinary family.

As evening becomes night, Panek realises that he has become caught in an insidious web of other people's secrets and lies, a Sartrian hell from which for him there may be no escape.


I haven't been so relieved to finish reading a novel in recent years than I was Breakfast with the Borgias

This from someone who's had to review some utter rubbish: books which tested my patience from the first page. Here, however, we have a completely different beast. Coming as it does from the Man Booker Prize winning author of Vernon God Little, it's no surprise that Breakfast with the Borgias is brilliantly written; that its themes are thoughtful, its execution deft; that its gregarious cast of characters come alive even as its slight story excites.

The trouble? The tension. It's almost intolerable. Especially in the first section, DBC Pierre's inaugural Hammer Horror is intensely stressful, like a bad blind date you can't escape.

Monday 18 August 2014

Guest Post | "Om-Nom-Omnigenre" by Tom Pollock

"Oh really, how cool, you wrote a book?"

"Yes. Well, a trilogy actually."

"Oh cool, what genre is it?"

"YA. YA Urban Fantasy. YA Urban Fantasy Dystopia. YA Urban Fantasy Dystopia Post-Apocalypse."

"YA Urban...?"

"YA Urban Fantasy Dystopia Post-Apocalypse?"

"More or less."

At that point the conversation usually dries up. My interlocutor necks the rest of their wine, and suddenly remembers they have somewhere else important to be, but I swear it’s true. The Skyscraper Throne trilogy, my series about a teenaged graffiti artist and her poet best friend pulled into a world of runaway train ghosts, living reflections and crane fingered demolition gods, really is of all these genres, and maybe more.

Genre, you see, is a taxonomy, a periodic table for literature, but the truth is, almost all books are compounds, not individual elements. But while which genres to file a particular story under is ultimately up to the reader, it’s the writer who gets to choose the tropes they’ll use to judge it.

But how to choose? Tropes are just story elements—all that marks them out as special is the frequency with which we use them. For me, the first element in any story is the theme. Theme is just a fancy word for ‘what the story’s about,’ and my themes... they kind of snowballed.

The first thing I knew about the trilogy, you see, was that I wanted to tell a story about growing up, so YA made sense. The City’s Son was about two girls pulled into a magical world hidden beneath the skin of everyday London. This is an Urban Fantasy trope so tropey that it barely even registers—it’s practically definitional of the genre—but it’s also as neat a metaphor for one’s first, faltering steps into adulthood as I can think of: a world at once strange and familiar, exciting and frightening, that you’ve lived in every day of your life but never really seen until now.

In the second novel—The Glass Republic—our scarred protagonist is pulled into an aesthetic dictatorship, a parallel city inside reflections where the full measure of your worth is judged by your face, and the standards of beauty are set by a proud and ruthless Mirrorstocracy. Again, the core idea of a repressive regime is hardly original, but the resonance of a teen testing themselves against the rules and limits of their new world, and deciding how much they will shape those limits and how far they’ll allow them to shape them... for me that was the perfect second act.

And the final apocalyptic act? Bringing the world-that-is-London to the brink of destruction by an urban plague: streets running at 1000 degree fevers, windows and doors vanishing to leave citizens sealed up in brick, solid roads turning in an instant to a liquid so thin you can’t swim in it, just sink and let it fill your nostrils? 

All that is because when you’ve grown up—really grown up—you can never go home again.

Maybe that’s why I think of being grown-up (past tense) as a synonym for death.

Anyway, that’s how one series gets to be in (at least) four sub genres. So I’ll throw it over to you, dear internet friend, what’s your favourite genre: horror? Police procedural? Romance? And much more importantly—what do those genres say to you?


Inventor of monsters and hugger of bears, Tom Pollock writes fantasy, and writes about fantasy. Say hey to him on twitter @tomhpollock or by way of his website.

Friday 15 August 2014

Book Review | Our Lady of the Streets by Tom Pollock

Ever since Beth Bradley found her way into a hidden London, the presence of its ruthless goddess, Mater Viae, has lurked in the background. Now Mater Viae has returned with deadly consequences. 

Streets are wracked by convulsions as muscles of wire and pipe go into spasm, bunching the city into a crippled new geography; pavements flare to thousand-degree fevers, incinerating pedestrians; and towers fall, their foundations decayed. 

As the city sickens, so does Beth—her essence now part of this secret London. But when it is revealed that Mater Viae's plans for dominion stretch far beyond the borders of the city, Beth must make a choice: flee, or sacrifice her city in order to save it.


There was always something special about Beth Bradley; something which went beyond her quick wit, her evident intelligence. Wasn't so long ago she was one among many—a badly-behaved teenager suffering through school, as exceptional individuals like Beth tend to—yet even then she was set apart by her street art; by graffiti which came to life because of her partnership with Pen, who'd append poetry to her pictures, turning still images into stories. Stories of the city.

Stories such as those Tom Pollock has told over the course of The Skyscraper Throne: an inventive and affecting urban fantasy saga which comes full circle with the release of Our Lady of the Streets. Be prepared to bid a bittersweet goodbye to Beth and her best friend, then... but not before they've had one last adventure together. An adventure as incredible as it is desperate; as tragical as it is magical.

Why? Because Beth Bradley is dying.

You could say she's city-sick. About to bow out because she has become London, and London is all but lost. Since the manifestation of Mater Viae's mirror image, the very streets have become fevered—a sweltering mass of metal and glass.

Most of the locals have legged it, luckily. But the infection is spreading. London is "an organic city," all of a sudden, "capable of growing hundreds of miles in only a few weeks—and bringing its sickness to everything it touches." Everything... and everyone.

Wednesday 13 August 2014

The Scotsman Abroad | The Afterparty At Last

Some time ago, I told you all how much I was looking forward to Daryl Gregory's new novel. Well, its release date in the UK is this week. At long last, the Afterparty is upon us!

Alas, I didn't love it. In my review for Strange Horizons, written around the time of Afterparty's publication in April Stateside, I commented as follows:
Taken together, The Parable of The Girl Who Died and Went to Hell, Not Necessarily in That Order, and The Sixth Sense twist at the back of the first chapter, when it dawns on us that Dr. Gloria is a pharmaceutical figment of Lyda's lively imagination, do a terrific job of eliciting interest—intrigue, even—in Afterparty, but what follows is, if not flat, then fairly familiar. Too soon, Gregory disposes of the doctor—she has a good Christian conscience, of course, so Lyda's abuse of Ollie bothers her—and in her absence, Afterparty becomes a more mundane chase-and-escape affair than the suggestive start of the book moots: it's revealed to be a thriller as opposed to a thinker, less Philip K. Dick than Lee Child or the like. 
It's a credit to Gregory that the going is engrossing in any event, in large part because of its pitch-perfect pace: a race to the finish line, in fact, between Lyda's lot and a cowboy contract killer called Vincent—pardon me: the Vincent (don't ask)—by way of a series of exciting set-pieces, such as the party's botched border crossing after an uncomfortably close encounter with an elderly Afghan drug distributor. 
On the back of Raising Stony Mayhall, I don't suppose it should come as a surprise that the author is more interested in character than narrative, but I found it harder to love Lyda than I did the eponymous zombie of Gregory's last novel, and Afterparty's plot, though perfectly paced, proved more pedestrian than that suggested by the promising premise.

Afterparty is a good book, to be sure, but here I'd been hoping for something superlative. Do yourself a favour and read Raising Stony Mayhall instead. Now that is an awesome novel.

Monday 11 August 2014

Book Review | Irregularity, ed. Jared Shurin

During the Age of Reason, the world’s greatest minds named, measured and catalogued the world around them.

They brought order and discipline to the universe. Except where they didn’t.

Irregularity collects fourteen original stories from extraordinary literary voices, each featuring someone—or something—that refused to obey the dictates of reason: Darwin’s other voyage, the secret names of spiders, the assassination of Isaac Newton and an utterly impossible book.


Most books are dedicated to people near and dear: to friends or family members of the minds behind the literary leaps such documents detail. Sometimes other authors or artists—figures of miscellaneous inspiration without whom some key element of the texts in question may have foundered or failed—are acknowledged in the aforementioned fashion. It's a rare thing, though, to see a dedication made not to a someone, but a something.

Irregularity is exactly that. It's an anthology dedicated to an idea, to an abstract: "to failure," in fact—though the text itself is a tremendous success. As an enterprise it is "no less than wonderful, and it seemed to me that every man of scholarship, every man of imagination, regardless of his language or place of birth, should find in it something extraordinary." (p.156) Lo, like The Lowest Heaven before it, the latest collaboration between Jurassic London and the National Maritime Museum showcases an audacious assemblage of tales arranged around an inspired idea: that we as a people were in a way robbed by the Age of Reason. 

Richard Dunn and Sophie Waring explain:
For this volume authors were asked for stories by the history of science from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. [...] It was an extraordinary period that saw important institutions created, amazing inventions, the harnessing of new power sources, countless discoveries and a tireless drive to classify almost everything. 
But there is a danger in hindsight. Science does not progress through a simple succession of ideas and inventions. False leads abound, and the theories and inventions that now look to have been the clear winners were not so obvious at the time, when alternative lines of attack showed equal promise. (p.284)
It is these false leads that Irregularity is interested in, in the main; these attempts "by the process-minded men of the Age of Reason to exert dominion over the mysteries of Creation." (p.128) To know is a noble goal, no doubt, but at what cost does understanding come?

Wednesday 6 August 2014

Book Review | Smiler's Fair by Rebecca Levene

Smiler's Fair: the great moving carnival where any pleasure can be had, if you're willing to pay the price. They say all paths cross at Smiler's Fair. They say it'll change your life. And five people are about to discover how true that is.

Nethmi, the orphaned daughter of a murdered nobleman, who in desperation commits an act that will haunt her forever. Dae Hyo, the skilled warrior, who discovers that a lifetime of bravery cannot make up for a single mistake. Marvan, the master swordsman, who takes more pleasure from killing than he should. Eric, who follows his heart only to find that love exacts a terrible price. And Krish, the humble goatherd, with a destiny he hardly understands and can never accept.

In a land where unimaginable horror lurks in the shadows, where the very sun and moon are at war, these five people will discover who they are—and who they're willing to become.


There's something for everyone at Smiler's Fair. Be you young or old, small or tall, green around the gills or hardened by the horrors of war, the travelling carnival will welcome you with open arms before attending to your every pleasure.

Say you want to drink yourself into oblivion or dabble in drugs from distant lands—head on over to the mobile market. Perhaps your deepest desire is to look Lady Luck in the eye at the high stakes tables, or earn enough money wheeling and dealing to make your way in the wider world—well, what's stopping you? Maybe what you've always wanted is to satisfy some carnal fantasy with a well-kept sellcock. Smiler's Fair doesn't care... not so long as the coin keeps coming.

The carnival is a crossroad of sorts in the splintered society of Rebecca Levene's first fantasy, where all people are treated equally—albeit as marks, in the main. Regardless, the poor mingle with the rich, the soldiers with the civilians and so on. Appropriately, it's here that our heroes meet at the very beginning of the book. And what an unlikely lot they are! There's Dae Hyo, an alcoholic warrior without a tribe to fight for; Krishanjit, a humble goatherd destined to kill a King; a restless seventeen year old sex worker called Eric; and the master swordsman Marvan—a serial killer in his spare time.

And then there's Nethmi, the orphaned daughter of a shipborn lord whose uncaring uncle has essentially sold her to the highest bidder. In a matter of days she's to be sent to Winter's Hammer, a shipfort in the distant wilderness, where she'll be married to a Lord who doesn't like her, far less love her. But before she goes, in "petty act of rebellion," (p.14) she visits the fair with a friend:
The gates were wood and twice as tall as a man. Through them she could see a broad street surfaced with straw and lined with buildings three, four and even five storeys tall, leaning perilously above the crowds. Further in there were taller spires yet, brightly tiled and hung with pennants whose designs she didn't know: a fat, laughing man, dice and—she blushed and turned away—a naked breast. It was impossible to think that none of this had been here two days before. And the people. Tall, short, fat, thing, with skin and hair of every shade, a babble of languages and faces eager for the entertainments of the fair. It was hard to imagine herself a part of that crowd, swept along in its dangerous currents. (p.13)
In premise, the part Nethmi plays in Smiler's Fair is sure to sound familiar to epic fantasy fans—as will Krishanjit's superficially predictable path through the narrative: he's the chosen one, don't you know. But no. Not exactly.

Monday 4 August 2014

Book Review | The Seventh Miss Hatfield by Anna Caltabiano

Rebecca, a 15-year-old American, isn't entirely happy with her life, comfortable though it is. Still, even she knows that she shouldn't talk to strangers. So when her mysterious neighbour Miss Hatfield asked her in for a chat and a drink, Rebecca wasn't entirely sure why she said yes. It was a decision that was to change everything.

For Miss Hatfield is immortal. And now, thanks to a drop of water from the Fountain of Youth, Rebecca is as well. But this gift might be more of a curse, and it comes with a price. Rebecca is beginning to lose her personality, to take on the aspects of her neighbour. She is becoming the next Miss Hatfield.

But before the process goes too far, Rebecca must travel back in time to turn-of-the-century New York and steal a painting, a picture which might provide a clue to the whereabouts of the source of immortality. A clue which must remain hidden from the world. In order to retrieve the painting, Rebecca must infiltrate a wealthy household, learn more about the head of the family, and find an opportunity to escape. Before her journey is through, she will also have—rather reluctantly—fallen in love. But how can she stay with the boy she cares for, when she must return to her own time before her time-travelling has a fatal effect on her body? And would she rather stay and die in love, or leave and live alone?

And who is the mysterious stranger who shadows her from place to place? A hunter for the secret of immortality... or someone who has already found it?


The Seventh Miss Hatfield is seventeen year old Anna Caltabiano's second novel: a scientific romance, after a fashion, and indeed, an extraordinary feat for someone so young. I can't in good conscience recommend it, however—much as I might like to champion the work of such a promising new author.

It's 1954, and Cynthia, a lonely little girl on the edge of adolescence, has become fascinated by her new neighbour: a strange lady who has spoken to no one in the weeks since she moved into the street. The better to get a glimpse of this antisocial character, Cynthia puts away her doll one day to take Miss Hatfield a package the postman abandoned when she refused to open her door. To her surprise and delight, she's invited in for a glass of freshly made lemonade. Her host, however, slips some mysterious liquid into her drink: a drop of water from a lake discovered in the distant past by Ponce de Leon which immediately makes her immortal.

"I'm rescuing you from your life," Rebecca Hatfield reasons. "I know you're miserable. I've watched you playing with your doll. You don't fit in with your friends or your family. You can't fit in because you aren't meant to—you're meant for something greater than a normal existence." (p.22) Something more like the lot of a time-travelling identity thief, if you can believe it, as that's exactly what Miss Hatfield asks Cynthia to do: to pop into the past, pretending to be someone else, so as to steal a prized painting.

Friday 1 August 2014

Book Review | Kill Baxter by Charlie Human

The world has been massively unappreciative of sixteen-year-old Baxter Zevcenko. His bloodline may be a combination of ancient Boer mystic and giant shape-shifting crow, and he may have won an inter-dimensional battle and saved the world, but does anyone care? No.

Instead he's packed off to Hexpoort, a magical training school that's part reformatory, part military school, and just like Hogwarts (except with sex, drugs, and better internet access). The problem is that Baxter sucks at magic. He's also desperately attempting to control his new ability to dreamwalk, all the while being singled out by the school's resident bully, who just so happens to be the Chosen One.

But when the school comes under attack, Baxter needs to forget all that and step into action. The only way is joining forces with his favourite recovering alcoholic of a supernatural bounty hunter, Ronin, to try and save the world from the apocalypse. Again.


The antidote to Harry Potter is back in Charlie Human's bawdy new novel: a lively elaboration of the mad as pants brand of South African urban fantasy advanced in Apocalypse Now Now which, whilst thrilling, makes some of the same mistakes its predecessor did.

Kill Baxter kicks off a matter of months on from the apocalyptic conclusion of Human's debut. Our sixteen year old protagonist may have saved the world, however his heroics haven't made a lick of a difference to his unlikely life.

By resolving to be a better person, Baxter tries to take matters into his own hands, but it isn't easy to be decent when you're rolling with Ronin:
"You cured yet? I could wait while you knock one out in the bushes."
"Thanks, but I'm OK," I say with a sarcastic smile. "Besides, nobody is apparently ever cured of addiction. Only in remission."
The bounty hunter has become a closer friend than I could ever have anticipated. Thanks largely to the fact that he helped me rescue Esme. He's the only one that I can really talk to about all the strange creeping, crawling, screeching, roaring things that cling to Cape Town's underbelly. Plus he always has drugs and alcohol. (p.11)
Luckily, drugs and alcohol aren't Baxter's major malfunction. Instead, he's hoping to be rid of his reliance on lies and the like. Fat chance of that, though.