Monday 30 March 2015

Book Review | The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Somewhere within our crowded sky, a crew of wormhole builders hops from planet to planet, on their way to the job of a lifetime. To the galaxy at large, humanity is a minor species, and one patched-up construction vessel is a mere speck on the starchart. This is an everyday sort of ship, just trying to get from here to there.

But all voyages leave their mark, and even the most ordinary of people have stories worth telling. A young Martian woman, hoping the vastness of space will put some distance between herself and the life she‘s left behind. An alien pilot, navigating life without her own kind. A pacifist captain, awaiting the return of a loved one at war.

Set against a backdrop of curious cultures and distant worlds, this episodic tale weaves together the adventures of nine eclectic characters, each on a journey of their own.


Self-published in the wake of a successful Kickstarter campaign before being picked up by a traditional genre fiction imprint, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet makes its move into the mainstream this month: a real rollercoaster of a path to market I urge you to ride when it arrives. 

Not for nothing did the Kitschies shortlist this progressive piece de resistance. Imagine smashing the groundbreaking, breathtaking science fiction of Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch saga against the salty space opera of The ExpanseThe Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet lacks the wall-to-wall action of that latter, and some of the former's finesse, yes—nevertheless, Becky Chambers' debut is a delight.

Rosemary Harper is on the run. Whether from someone or something, she won't say—not today—but whatever the shape this danger takes, she's taking it very seriously indeed. She's frittered away her life savings on Mars' black market, the better to lay claim to a new name, and gotten herself a job as good as guaranteed to see her light years from the only home Rosemary has ever known.
Never in her life had she worried about credits or having a place to go home to. But with the last of her savings running thin and her bridges burned behind her, there was no margin for error. The price of a fresh start was having no one to fall back on. 
No pressure, or anything. (p.14)

Thursday 26 March 2015

Coming Attractions | Speak Easy by Catherynne M. Valente

As fine as the four Fairyland books have been, I've been keen for a period of years for Catherynne M. Valente to get back to the sumptuous standalone stuff that led me to love her work in the first. Happily, it looks like she's doing exactly that in her "fanciful" new novella. Readers, meet Speak Easy:
If you go looking for it, just about halfway uptown and halfway downtown, there's this hotel stuck like a pin all the way through the world. Down inside the Artemisia it's this mortal coil all over. Earthly delights on every floor. 
The hotel Artemisia sits on a fantastical 72nd Street, in a decade that never was. It is home to a cast of characters, creatures, and creations unlike any other, including especially Zelda Fair, who is perfect at being Zelda, but who longs for something more. 
The world of this extraordinary novella—a bootlegger's brew of fairy tales, Jazz Age opulence, and organised crime—is ruled over by the diminutive, eternal, sinister Al. Zelda holds her own against the boss, or so it seems. But when she faces off against him and his besotted employee Frankie in a deadly game that just might change everything, she must bet it all and hope not to lose...
Multiple-award-winning, New York Times' bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente once again reinvents a classic in Speak Easy, which interprets "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" if Zelda Fitzgerald waltzed in and stole the show. This Prohibition-Era tale will make heads spin and hearts pound. It's a story as old as time, as effervescent as champagne, and as dark as the devil's basement on a starless night in the city.
The cover art is an ornate affair, which is fitting, in that "ornate" is as apt an adjective as any to describe Valente's ridiculously pretty prose. It's what's inside that counts, of course, but it's nice, nevertheless, when what's outside also factors into the mathematics.

Now I have a confession to make before I say good day. When I saw Speak Easy mentioned in the Subterranean Press newsletter, my first thoughts were: What? Haven't I read this already?

I haven't. I have, however, read—and reviewed—a very similar story in recent years. Like Speak Easy, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a prohibition-era reimagining of The Twelve Dancing Princesses.

To maker matters worse, this is far from the first time I've mixed Catherynne M. Valente up with the author of The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, Genevieve Valentine. Why? My best guess is because their surnames make them shelf-friends in my lovely library, leading to a little confusion that Speak Easy's existence only exacerbates.

I won't hold that against it, though. Roll on Speak Easy's publication in the States this August!

Tuesday 24 March 2015

Book Review | The Glorious Angels by Justina Robson

Mixing science fiction and fantasy with elements of horror and erotica, as well as the weird, The Glorious Angels is Justina Robson's first non tie-in novel since Down to the Bone—the conclusion of the Quantum Gravity quintet—fully four years ago. I don't mind admitting that I had high hopes it would represent a return to form for the oft award-nominated author, but despite its dizzying ambition and a few glimmers of brilliance, to be blunt, it doesn't. A syrupy slow opening sees to that from the start.

The first few hundred pages of Robson's cross-genre odyssey take place in Glimshard, a magnificent city of crystalline stems and spires at the very tip of which sits the Empress Shamuit Torada, who has in her infinite wisdom waged a war of sorts against the Karoo, a strange and essentially alien race "from so far away they were considered beyond civilisation, as elusive as the two-headed wolf of legend," (p.21) and at least as dangerous, I dare say.

As to why she's set her sights on such a terrible enemy when her people are pitifully unprepared for conflict of any sort beyond the wars of words fought in coffee shops across the capital... well, some among the citizens of Glimshard wonder as we do, and some among them think they've arrived at an answer: in brief, because the Karoo's territory takes in a dig site beneath which several surviving scientists have seen evidence of something special; something which the Empress desires so dearly that she's ready to risk the survival of all her beloved subjects to recover.

The exact nature of this purported prize is an enigma wrapped inside of a riddle—buried, to boot, fathoms below the surface of the world—even to Tralane Huntingore, Professor of Engineering at the Glimshard Academy of Sciences.

Friday 20 March 2015

Book Review | Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

1976: Peggy Hillcoat is eight. She spends her summer camping with her father, playing her beloved record of The Railway Children and listening to her mother's grand piano, but her pretty life is about to change.

Her survivalist father, who has been stockpiling provisions for the end which is surely coming soon, takes her from London to a cabin in a remote European forest. There he tells Peggy the rest of the world has disappeared.

Her life is reduced to a piano which makes music but no sound, a forest where all that grows is a means of survival, and a tiny wooden hut that is Everything.


Kids. They'll believe almost anything if the "truth" comes from someone they trust.

And why wouldn't they? The world is wide and full of wonders we expect our children to accept without question. In that sense, the thought that a big ol' bunny rabbit brings them chocolate eggs each Easter isn't much less credulous than the idea that a thing called gravity keeps them from flying into the sky.

But there's a big difference between a little white lie told with the best of intentions and the apocalyptic fiction Peggy Hillcoat's father passes off as a fact at the start of Claire Fuller's disarmingly dark, if indisputably beautiful debut.

A so-called survivalist who has till today remained rooted in relative reality—content to attend meetings with other Retreaters at the same time as stockpiling provisions to see himself, his wife Ute and their darling daughter through the imminent collapse of civilised society—Peggy's papa is pushed over the proverbial edge by a betrayal at the beginning of the book, so when Ute, a prestigious pianist, takes some time away from the family home to tour, her husband takes the opportunity to spirit their eight-year-old off on what he calls a holiday.

Poor, perceptive Peggy sees through this ruse, but what's a girl in the wilderness of the woods to do except forge on forward in her father's footsteps?
The holiday my father had promised wasn't a holiday. There were no beaches or sandcastles, no ice creams, no donkey rides; my father said we would rest when we got to die Hütte. The bushes at the sides of the path we walked along were nearly grown together, as if to say, this path is not for humans. My father was having none of it. (p.49)
Their destination, die Hütte, is a ramshackle cabin in the forests of rural France where Peggy's papa plans to put down roots. To that end, he tells her that the world beyond the hills on the horizon is gone, along with all the folks unfortunate enough to be on the other side of the Great Divide, including Ute—and innocent as she is, Peggy assumes his tall tale is true.

Thursday 19 March 2015

Bargain Books | Day of The Book of the Dead

A mailshot from the Jurassic London lot last night alerted me to a one-day-only deal that I'd be doing you all a disservice not to talk about. The story goes:
Amelia Edwards—author, suffragette, archeologist and founder of the Egypt Exploration Fund—is receiving a well-deserved Blue Plaque from English Heritage [today]. 
The Book of the Dead, our anthology of all-original mummy fiction, is dedicated to Amelia Edwards. As a novelist and talented writer of the supernatural, an outspoken champion on social issues and a pioneering archeologist, she is an inspiring figure in every way. 
In her honour, we're giving The Book of the Dead away for free for 24 hours—you can download it from any Amazon site. We want to spread the word about Amelia Edwards, great, contemporary mummy-fiction and the hard work of our partners at the Egypt Exploration Society, so please: treat yourself to a copy of this amazing (multiple-award-nominated) anthology, and also tell your friends!
That's what I did, and that's what I'm doing!

Given that the publisher is a not-for-profit, I'd have felt far worse about bagging a digital edition of The Book of the Dead for free if I hadn't already plunked a few pounds down for a copy of the paperback. Say you feel the same or similarly: why not show your support by buying Unearthed, the companion piece to The Book of the Dead, or else Jurassic London's latest anthologies, Jews vs. Aliens and Jews vs. Zombies?

One way or the other, don't miss your window, because The Book of the Dead is—as I wrote in my review—incredible.

Monday 16 March 2015

Book Review | Sword of the North by Luke Scull

Five centuries ago, the greatest wizards of the north challenged the gods. The mages stormed the heavens, stole immortality from the divine and cast them down. Now the corpses of the fallen pantheon are a poison, leaking wild magic that births abominations across the land. With the barriers between the realms failing, the world faces apocalypse. The bards name this the Age of Ruin, a time in desperate need of heroes. But heroes are in short supply. The only candidates—a motley company at best—are scattered to the four winds.

Former rebel Sasha has now become an unwilling envoy between the powerful. Eremul the Halfmage languishes in disgrace, his warnings of approaching war falling on deaf ears. Yllandris, sorceress of the High Fangs, servant to a demon lord, has become that which she most despises. Davarus Cole, assassin of the immortal, lies on the brink of death. The legendary champion Brodar Kayne carves a bloody path towards his enemy of old in search of the woman he thought dead...


In "the five hundred and first year of the Age of Ruin," the line between good and evil is so diminished that most are convinced it no longer exists. It's every man for himself, and every woman as well, whether he hails from filthy Dorminia or she from lavish Thelassa. To wit, heroes and villains are artifacts of the past; fossils of a sort, all frail and friable... which is damn near a definition of the way Brodar Kayne has been feeling recently.

The so-called Sword of the North "had killed more demonkin than he could count, dire wolves and trolls by the dozen. Even a giant that had wandered down from the Spin the autumn just past." He knows, though, that his monster-slaying days are numbered. The years have taken their toll, of course; he's grown "old and weak: that was the truth." Yet as inescapable as his increasing weakness is, Kayne thinks he has one last mission in him:
A thousand or more miles away, the wife he had until recently thought dead waited for him. He would find Mhaira; put things right between him and his son if he could. Then he and the Shaman would have their reckoning. 
After two long years, the Sword of the North was coming home.
Coming home to "scour the land in a storm of blood and fire," perhaps? Well... we'll see. At the very least he won't be coming home alone:
The grim Highlander never showed any sign of weakness, would rather walk across hot coals than admit to feeling sympathy. But the Wolf knew all about promises. His word was his bond, and depending on where a man stood it could either be a death sentence or the greatest gift. He might be the angriest, surliest son of a bitch Kayne had ever known, a fearless warrior seemingly without peer, but Jerek was also the truest friend anyone could wish for.
Theirs is a friendship readers took as read in The Grim Company. At most they were partners with a past—a past explored to excellent effect in this text. Indeed, the bond between these brothers in blood is at the very centre of Luke Scull's sequel, for as Kayne and Jerek face off against any number of fearsome creatures and creepy people in the present day part of the narrative, in flashback, we hear where the pair came from, how they eventually met, and learn, at the last, of the lie underlying their lives: a lie explosively exposed in Sword of the North, naturally.

Monday 9 March 2015

Book Review | The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Romans have long since departed, and Britain is steadily declining into ruin. But at least the wars that once ravaged the country have ceased.

The Buried Giant begins as a couple, Axl and Beatrice, set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen for years. They expect to face many hazards—some strange and other-worldly—but they cannot yet foresee how their journey will reveal to them dark and forgotten corners of their love for one another.

Sometimes savage, often intensely moving, Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel in a decade is about lost memories, love, revenge and war.


Like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared, Kazuo Ishiguro's first new novel since Never Let Me Go a decade ago appears to be another of those elderly odysseys we've seen with such zeitgeist-like regularity recently—albeit one with the trappings, and the characters, of a classical fantasy.

There be dragons in this book, to be sure—alongside sprites, ogres, wizards and warriors—and you can practically taste the magic in the air of its Arthurian England. But never mind that, or the fact that its narrative is arranged around an epic quest, because The Buried Giant is at its best when it's about Axl and Beatrice, a loving couple who leave their humble home ostensibly to travel to a village a few days walk away. There, the pair hope to renew their relationship with their estranged son.

A simple enough thing, you might think, but the kicker—the tragedy, in truth—is that they don't really remember him. They don't really remember much of anything.

Perhaps that's par for the course, as Axl—rifling through the impressions of memories that have of late escaped him whilst he waits for his ailing wife to awaken—reflects in the first chapter:
He was after all an ageing man and prone to occasional confusion. And yet, this instance of the red-haired woman had been merely one of a steady run of such puzzling episodes. Frustratingly, he could not at this moment think of so many examples, but they had been numerous, of that there was no doubt. (p.10)
As it happens, Axl and Beatrice are far from the only souls, young or old, laid low by this seeping sickness. This sort of thing has been happening all across the kingdom. A plague of forgetfulness seems to have spread by way of the strange mist that's moved in, affecting almost everyone.

Everyone except Winstan, that is...

Thursday 5 March 2015

Meme, Myself and I | Regarding Reading Habits

Memes of the old mold seem in recent years to have gone the way of the dearly departed dodo, and although I thought them at best a guilty pleasure then, now, much to my surprise, I find myself missing them. To wit, it was with happiness in my heart that I saw a fifteen question genre fiction book meme, mostly focused on reading and buying habits, featured on Pornokitsch a wee while back. I gather those guys got it from Gail Carriger, who traced the thing back to SF Signal.

Fast forward a fortnight—and the fact that it's taken me a fortnight to answer fifteen quick questions should tell you something about how bloody busy I've been recently—and I'm finally finished!


1. What was the last sf/f/h book you finished reading?

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: a genre novel by all accounts, although one at its best when its fantastical trappings are left in the background. I called it "a minor work by a modern master" in my review for—a statement I feel safe standing by despite the unadulterated praise that's been heaped on it this week.

2. What was the last sf/f/h book you did not finish reading and why?

I finish almost everything! But that's because almost everything I read, I read with a view to review, and my feeling is that to review a book fairly, you have to see it through to its conclusion.

3. What was the last sf/f/h book you read
that you liked but most people didn’t?

Hmm. Maybe Something Coming Through by Paul McAuley? I wouldn't go so far as to say most people disliked it, but I certainly liked it more than most.

4. What was the last sf/f/h book you read
that you disliked but most people did?

As above, so below. Though I didn't quite dislike it—as I put it at the time, The Death House by Sarah Pinborough is never less than "completely competent"—I certainly didn't love it, and I dare say a fair few folks did. Each to their own, of course.

5. How long do your single-sitting
reading sessions usually last?

If I have less than an hour to spend reading, it isn't often worth my while, because the longer I spend reading, the faster the speed I read at. In an hour, for instance, I might make it through fifty pages; in four, I'll defeat four hundred. It's funny. 

Also frustrating, because four free hours are increasingly hard to find.

6. What are you currently reading?

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers: a formerly self-published science fiction novel which the fine folks at Hodder are hoping to bring to a bigger audience when they re-release it as an ebook in a few weeks.

7. Do you like it so far?

I'll be reviewing it soon—don't anyone act surprised or anything—so I don't want to give the game away, but do I like it so far? Hell yes.

That said, I still have half of the whole to go. It's all to play for!

8. How long ago did you buy the book you are
currently reading (or the last book you read)?

I, uh... didn't. I'm reading a review copy. But I do at least have the decency to feel bad about that, such that I'll probably buy a final physical edition of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet if it continues to kick ass.

9. What was the last physical sf/f/h book you bought?

The Bees by Laline Paull. My mum doesn't read much, and rarely could what she reads be considered speculative, so when she does recommend something along those lines, I pay attention.

She was well into this one. Not sure I am so far, but my progress through The Bees has been slow; I'll let you know how it goes.

10. What is the sf/f/h sub-genre you like the most and why?

Weird stuff really does it for me. In part because there's just not a lot of it, so it seems special in a way other sub-genres don't.

Relatedly, roll on the next China Mieville collection, Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories.

11. What is the sf/f/h sub-genre you dislike the most and why?

Epic fantasy can be simply brilliant—see Guy Gavriel Kay, another of my favourite fictionists—but all too often, it's forgettable and repetitive.

But on balance, I'm going to have to say steampunk. Nine times out of ten, I find, steampunk stories favours style over substance, and I've long since tired of trying to find exceptions to the rule.

12. What is your favorite electronic reading device?

The second generation Kindle Paperwhite I gifted myself last summer. I don't use it all that often while I'm at home, where of late I've had the luxury of a library, but it's been a proper godsend on holidays. Come the end of the month it'll be coming to Gdansk with me.

I'm already wondering what to load it up with...

13. What was the last sf/f/h eBook you bought?

Actually, I bought twenty, some of which I already owned in physical format, by way of the Humble Subterranean Press Book Bundle. I can't resist a sweet deal, and at fifteen squids these were a real steal.

14. Do you read books exclusively
in one format (physical/electronic)?

I used to do. Reading ebooks was an age-old practice before I finally gave it a go, and old man that I am, I still favour physical editions—for the feel, the physical impression of progress and the notion of the novel as an object of artistic value—but I'm markedly more open to ebooks these days.

15. Do you read ebooks exclusively on a single device,
ie. an eBook reader, a smartphone or a tablet?

When I read ebooks, I read them almost exclusively on the Paperwhite. Occasionally I have to work with a PDF file, however, and allow me to close out this post by echoing the frustrations of the Pornokitsch kids: PDF files are a living nightmare. For those, I have my tablet: a 10.1 inch Samsung Galaxy Tab S.

Tuesday 3 March 2015

Book Review | Touch by Claire North

He tried to take my life. Instead I took his.

It was a long time ago. I remember it was dark, and I didn't see my killer until it was too late. As I died, my hand touched his. That's when the first switch took place.

Suddenly, I was looking through the eyes of my killer, and I was watching myself die.

Now switching is easy. I can jump from body to body, have any life, be anyone.

Some people touch lives. Others take them. I do both.


Fresh from the success of The First Fifteen Live of Harry August, Claire North—the second pseudonym (after Kate Griffin) of prose prodigy Catherine Webb—returns with Touch, a tremendously well-travelled science-fictional thriller that's as disturbing as its predecessor was delightful.

From word one we follow an ancient entity christened Kepler by its enemies; a continuous consciousness of some sort that at the moment of its first host's murder moved—much to its own amazement—into its murderer's mind, and took over his body to boot. Several so-called "skins" later, Kepler has a basic understanding of its situation; of its ability, in particular, to essentially possess a person—any person—with but a touch.

"I walk through people's lives and I steal what I find," Kepler confesses. "Their bodies, their time, their money, their friends, their lovers, their wives—I'll take it all, if I want to." (p.67)

Happily, our entity has attempted, over the centuries, to apply its power responsibly; to cause as little trauma as possible by sliding through the lives of others rather than trampling everything in its path; to recompense those who have played host to its essence, even. All things considered, Kepler seems to be a bit of a stand-up spirit... if spirit it is.

But of course it isn't the only being able to inhabit the bodies of bystanders, and some of the others have attracted the attention of an organisation dedicated to their destruction—an organisation that sends an assassin to kill Kepler in the frenetic first flush of Touch.