Monday 27 April 2015

The Scotsman Abroad | Ascending the City of Stairs

As we speak, I find myself on a bit of a science fiction kick. On the back of Way Down Dark by James Smythe and Crashing Heaven by Al Robertson, I'm deep in Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, with Slow Bullets by Alasdair Reynolds, Nemesis Games by James S. A. Corey and Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson coming up.

Far be it from me to moan! The first few of those books have been brilliant, and I have every reason to expect great things from the remainder. If I had my druthers, I'd be reading a bit of fantasy, a spot of horror and maybe a mite of crime between all that sf, but deadlines are deadlines, and that's fine.

Happily, the last fantasy novel I read for review was tremendous, too—apart from a somewhat sluggish start:
Building worlds is hard work: a self-evident statement which goes some way toward explaining why most authors make do with the mundane plane that has us all in its thrall. But putting the umpteen pieces of truly wonderful worlds together—worlds whose histories and mysteries resonate with readers and ring of authenticity despite the fact that they’ve been conjured whole-cloth—has to be harder by far. There’s no right way to do the deed, either, and the field is replete with wrong ‘uns. Some creators descend into tedious detail; others leave so much to the imagination that the foundation of the fiction that follows is fitful. Robert Jackson Bennett falls fleetingly afoul of the former problem in his first full-on fantasy; but I’ve got good news, too, in that the world, when it is built, is brilliant: the story of City of Stairs springs from Bennett’s setting, leading to a feeling of coherency, of completeness, that precious few fantasies can match. The narrative’s characters, too, are inextricably of the divided domain it describes. 
Imagine, if you will, a realm in which gods once walked among men: a Continent complete with a half-dozen different living divinities. No one can say with any certainty where they came from, or what they could possibly have wanted—only that each of the six built its own city, its own base of operations, and called upon its most fervent followers to further the divergent doctrines of their chosen one of choice.
Read the rest of my review of City of Stairs on Strange Horizons. You can and you should, too. It's a bloody good book—certainly the most satisfying fantasy I've laid eyes on since Smiler's Fair.

Tuesday 21 April 2015

Heads Up! | The Three of The Two of Swords

K. J. Parker is to my mind one of the best writers writing right now, so I was all sorts of excited when Subterranean Press announced Savages, the author's first novel proper since Sharps three long years ago. I still am; I dare say I'm delighted. But—be still my beating heart—Orbit has gone and beaten Savages to market with a serial novel project called The Two of Swords.
"Why are we fighting this war? Because evil must be resisted, and sooner or later there comes a time when men of principle have to make a stand. Because war is good for business and it's better to die on our feet than live on our knees. Because they started it. But at this stage in the proceedings," he added, with a slightly lop-sided grin, "mostly from force of habit." 
A soldier with a gift for archery. A woman who kills without care. Two brothers, both unbeatable generals, now fighting for opposing armies. No-one in the vast and once glorious United Empire remains untouched by the rift between East and West, and the war has been fought for as long as anyone can remember. Some still survive who know how it was started, but no-one knows how it will end.
Initially, The Two of Swords will only be available as eight ebook "episodes" released between now—as in RIGHT NOW, readers—and September, but collected print and digital editions are of course on the cards for some undisclosed date after the fact.

To tell the truth, I'd really rather have the whole novel in hand before I begin... but hey, you won't catch me waiting for new K. J. Parker if I can help it. And I can! And at 99 pence a pop, or less than a dollar across the pond—the perfect impulse purchase price—I've already bought a copy of the first installment of The Two of Swords, and I plan to crack open my Kindle just as soon as I've put the finishing touches to this post.

P. S. Done... and done! :)

Friday 10 April 2015

Book Review | The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall

For almost a decade, Rachel Caine has turned her back on home, kept distant by family disputes and her work monitoring wolves on an Idaho reservation. But now, summoned by the eccentric Earl of Annerdale and his controversial scheme to reintroduce the Grey Wolf to the English countryside, she is back in the peat and wet light of the Lake District.

The earl's project harks back to an ancient idyll of untamed British wilderness—though Rachel must contend with modern-day concessions to health and safety, public outrage and political gain—and the return of the Grey after hundreds of years coincides with her own regeneration: impending motherhood, and reconciliation with her estranged family.

The Wolf Border investigates the fundamental nature of wilderness and wildness, both animal and human. It seeks to understand the most obsessive aspects of humanity: sex, love, and conflict; the desire to find answers to the question of our existence; those complex systems that govern the most superior creature on earth.


Between land and sea, day and night, life and death and the like, there lie those borders that, much as we might try, we cannot deny. Equally, though, there are those we impose: make-believe borders drawn to defend against that which we fear, as well as to keep what we want for ourselves within.

Set in the pristine wilderness split down the middle by the border between Scotland and England—as powerful a haunt here as it's ever been—in the run-up to and the aftermath of 2014's hotly fought Independence Referendum, Sarah Hall's fifth work of fiction is a sumptuous study of truth and trust some are sure to slight because it seems slow... but no. The Wolf Border takes longer than I'd like to find its feet, but before long it's toddling confidently, then running rampant—not unlike the near-mythical infant its protagonist produces.

An age ago, wildlife biologist Rachel Caine escaped this close-knit community—most notably her suffocating mother—to run a sanctuary of sorts in Idaho. There, she learned how to live and how to love—not by befriending her fellows, but by watching the wild wolf packs that prowl the plains of the reservation.

At the outset of Hall's novel, Rachel has to head home for her first visit in what feels like forever:
The last ended badly, with an argument, a family riven. She is being called upon to entertain a rich man's whimsy, a man who owns almost a fifth of her home county. And her mother is dying. Neither duty is urgent; both players will wait, with varying degrees of patience. Meanwhile, snow. The Chief Joseph wolves are scenting hoof prints, making forays from the dent. The pups have grown big and ready, any day now they will start their journey. (pp.3-4)
See how the author suggests something of Rachel's situation in the same breath as introducing the wolves? That's not an accident. Next to nothing about this book is. The Wolf Border is almost impossibly purposeful: its every element is meticulously measured, developed with painstaking consideration, before being brought to a carefully controlled conclusion.

Thursday 2 April 2015

Book Review | Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory

Harrison Harrison—H2 to his mom—is a lonely teenager who's been terrified of the water ever since he was a toddler in California, when a huge sea creature capsized their boat, and his father vanished. One of the "sensitives" who are attuned to the supernatural world, Harrison and his mother have just moved to the worst possible place for a boy like him: Dunnsmouth, a Lovecraftian town perched on rocks above the Atlantic, where strange things go on by night, monsters lurk under the waves, and creepy teachers run the local high school.

On Harrison's first day at school, his mother, a marine biologist, disappears at sea. Harrison must attempt to solve the mystery of her accident, which puts him in conflict with a strange church, a knife-wielding killer, and the Deep Ones, fish-human hybrids that live in the bay. It will take all his resources—and an unusual host of allies—to defeat the danger and find his mother.


Not an author to dare wearing out his welcome in any one genre, Afterparty's Daryl Gregory turns his attention to tentacles in Harrison Squared, a light-hearted Lovecraft lark featuring a friendly fishboy and a ghastly artist which straddles the line between the silly and the sinister superbly.

It's a novel named after its narrator, Harrison Harrison—to the power of five, in fact, but around his mom and his mates, just H2 will do. Whatever you want to call him—and you wouldn't be the first to go with weirdo—Harrison has a paralysing fear of the sea. A hatred, even, and for good reason, because when our boy was a baby, his father—Harrison Harrison the fourth, of course—was swallowed by the waves, one dark day; a day Harrison has forgotten almost completely:
Some images, however, are so clear to me that they feel more true than my memory of yesterday's breakfast. I can see my father's face as he picks me up by my life vest. I can feel the wind as he tosses me up and over the next wave, toward that capsized boat. And I can see, as clearly as I can see my own arm, a huge limb that's risen out of the water.
The arm is fat, and gray, the underside covered in pale suckers. It whips across my father's chest, grasping him—and then it pulls him away from me. The tentacle is attached to a huge body, a shape under the water that's bigger than anything I've ever seen. (p.12)
In the lifetime since that nightmarish sight, Harrison has reasoned his strange recollections away. He knows, now, that he imagined the monster:
Yes, we were out on the ocean, and the boat did flip over, but no creature bit through my leg to the bone—it was a piece of metal from the ship that sliced into me. My mother swam me to shore, and kept me from bleeding to death. My father drowned like an ordinary man. (p.12)
Little wonder, really, that Harrison isn't keen on the sea. His marine biologist mother, on the other hand, is obsessed with it—as his father was before her—which is why she and her son have arranged to spend a couple of months in Dunnsmouth: a creepy coastal village where Harrison's mother means to meet Mr. Mesonychoteuthis Hamiltoni.

(That's a forty-five foot long squid "whose suckers are ringed not only by teeth but sharp, swivelling hooks," (p.22) for those of you who haven't been practising your Latin of late.)