Monday 28 September 2015

Book Review | The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

Baru Cormorant believes any price is worth paying to liberate her people—even her soul.

When the Empire of Masks conquers her island home, overwrites her culture, criminalises her customs, and murders one of her fathers, Baru vows to swallow her hate, join the Empire's civil service, and claw her way high enough to set her people free.

Sent as an Imperial agent to distant Aurdwynn, another conquered country, Baru discovers it's on the brink of rebellion. Drawn by the intriguing duchess Tain Hu into a circle of seditious dukes, Baru may be able to use her position to help. As she pursues a precarious balance between the rebels and a shadowy cabal within the Empire, she orchestrates a do-or-die gambit with freedom as the prize.

But the cost of winning the long game of saving her people may be far greater than Baru imagines...


I like to think of myself as a relatively well-mannered man, but if, a year or so ago, you'd told me that one of 2015's very finest fantasies would come from the same creator who gave the video game Destiny its at best forgettable flavour, I dare say I may have laughed in your face.

That would have been my mistake, because The Traitor Baru Cormorant (AKA The Traitor in the UK) is, as it happens, practically masterful—not a word I can recall deploying to describe a debut in all the years I've been a book reviewer, but in the complete and total control Seth Dickinson demonstrates over his intricately crafted narrative and characters, this is exactly that: a first novel so clever and subversive that it bears comparison to K. J. Parker's best and most messed-up efforts.

The titular traitor is but an innocent in the beginning. Beloved by her mother, Pinion, and her fathers, Salm and Solit, Baru Cormorant is a precocious so-and-so at seven, with a passion for mathematics and a habit of staring at the stars, so when the Masquerade invades tiny Taranoke—bearing life-changing gifts, initially, such as sanitation and better education—she's secretly pleased.

Unfortunately, a plague waits in the wake of the Masquerade—a plague that devastates the poor Taranoki folk—and the schooling Baru was so happy to have has a couple of cruel and unusual caveats attached, not least the notion of the "unhygenic mating" (p.49) her fathers apparently practice. Add to that the punishments imposed by the empire upon unlicensed lovers, which is to say sterilisation and "reparatory childbearing," whereby women are "confiscated and sown like repossessed earth." (p.187)

These rites are revolting and Baru knows it, but to stand a chance of expanding her horizons, and ultimately improving the lot of those like her, she holds her tongue. Even when her father Salm mysteriously disappears, she keeps her own counsel. In that moment, though, Baru turns on the Masquerade—she just doesn't tell anyone about her change of heart. Rather, she rededicates herself to its perverse principles, thinking that "if the Masquerade could not be stopped by spear or treaty, she would change it from within." (p.39)

Thursday 24 September 2015

The Scotsman Abroad | We Need to Talk

I suppose it's fair to say that the summer's behind us. The summer holidays certainly are.

For most folks—most adults, I mean—that's got to be good news, because instead of treasuring them as we used to do, we tolerate them, if we're honest. The weather is an almost constant disappointment, except for the midges and the mozzies. The entertainment we all enjoy the rest of the year round goes away, and in its place? Big budget, lowest common denominator nonsense that leaves the likes of us with The Great British Bake-Off and little else to distract ourselves from the influx of children suddenly under our feet in the street.

But as a full-time teacher, a regular reviewer of books—books that take me ten times as long to read as they used to do—a columnist for and, lest we forget, a boyfriend to my better half of damn near a decade, the summer holidays have, in recent years, come to mean something very real to me: a chance to make some changes. To finally follow through on a few long put off promises. Maybe even realise the dreams I've dreamed for decades.

The thing of it is, the summer holidays also represent an opportunity to rest, and most years, that's about all I end up doing.

This year, though, I figured fuck it, I'll catch my breath when I'm dead, and in the seven weeks of the summer holidays, I made some of those long-delayed changes. I kept a couple promises—to myself and my nearest and dearest. Readers: I even realised a dream!

Not to start the show with the show-stopper, but folks, I finally stopped smoking: a nasty-ass habit I picked up when I was 15 and swore to shake before it was too late.

I started running. First a mile every morning. Then two when I found one wasn't quite cutting it. These days, I don't feel right about my routine until I've finished a 5k.

Last but not least, like many readers, I've always nursed notions of writing stories of my own. Truth be told, I don't know if I have a novel in me, but as it happens, I do have a few short stories. One of those—the first work of fiction I ever submitted, in fact—a 2,000 word tale called 'Let's Play'—is widely available as of today.
We Need to Talk features original work from Daisy Buchanan, Robert Sharp, Kim Curran, Andreina Cordani, Amy McLellan and over a dozen more—all stories inspired by (very) difficult conversations! 
All proceeds are given to the women's cancer charity, The Eve Appeal. September is Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month, and [Jurassic London, in collaboration with Kindred, is] proud to support their efforts. 
The lovely paperbacks are exclusively available through Foyles, who are currently selling the book at a chunky discount (seriously, it is under a fiver). For those of a more digital inclination, the ebooks can be found on and
Just to be published would have made my summer. To be published by a publisher I have such immense respect for, alongside an array of properly awesome authors, and in support of such a phenomenally positive cause?

I can hardly begin to express how very much being featured in We Need to Talk means to me, but it'd mean that much more if I could share it with a few of you.

If you like it, let me know!

Friday 18 September 2015

Book Review | Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

In the near future, after a storm strikes New York City, the strangenesses begin. A down-to-earth gardener finds that his feet no longer touch the ground. A graphic novelist awakens in his bedroom to a mysterious entity that resembles his own sub-Stan Lee creation. Abandoned at the mayor’s office, a baby identifies corruption with her mere presence, marking the guilty with blemishes and boils. A seductive gold digger is soon tapped to combat forces beyond imagining.

Unbeknownst to them, they are all descended from the whimsical, capricious, wanton creatures known as the jinn, who live in a world separated from ours by a veil. Centuries ago, Dunia, a princess of the jinn, fell in love with a mortal man of reason. Together they produced an astonishing number of children, unaware of their fantastical powers, who spread across generations in the human world.

Once the line between worlds is breached on a grand scale, Dunia’s children and others will play a role in an epic war between light and dark spanning a thousand and one nights—or two years, eight months, and twenty-eight nights. It is a time of enormous upheaval, in which beliefs are challenged, words act like poison, silence is a disease, and a noise may contain a hidden curse


In Salman Rushdie's first novel for older readers in something like seven years—an onion-skinned thing at once wise, wilful and winningly whimsical—a great storm signals the end of the world as we know it.

A state of strangeness reigns in the wake of this otherworldly weather. Lightning springs from fingers; a would-be graphic novelist dreams the superhero he conceived into being; an abandoned baby bestows "blemishes and boils" on those who tell tall tales in her pint-sized presence; meanwhile, an elderly gentleman who calls himself Geronimo wakes up one day able to levitate: which all sounds quite delightful, doesn't it?

Don't be fooled, folks. Many will perish in the next two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights. Wars will be fought and an awful lot—not least lives—will be lost. But every ending has a new beginning built in, and perhaps a better world will arise from the ashes of the last. Maybe Rushdie's plea for a future "ruled by reason, tolerance, magnanimity, knowledge, and restraint" will be accepted rather than outright rejected. Stranger things have happened.

The overarching narrative of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (hereafter just Two Years, if you please) is an encapsulation of exactly that argument—between the rational and the unreasonable. Representing these opposing perspectives are two long-dead men: the intellectual Idb Rushd and Ghazali of Tus, a sinister, fire-and-brimstone figure whose irrational rhetoric made a laughing stock of the aforementioned philosopher.

But Rushd's life was not all strife. For a little while, when he lived—a millennium or so ago, don't you know—he loved, and was loved by, a beautiful woman called Dunia who bore him many children.
Being a man of reason, he did not guess that she was a supernatural creature, a jinnia, of the tribe of female jinn, the jiniri: a grand princess of that tribe, on an earthly adventure, pursuing her fascination with human men in general and brilliant ones in particular.
Generations later, in the present day, their disparate descendants—all one thousand and one of them—are all that stands between humanity and the dark jinn that declare war on the world at the behest of the disgusted dust that was once Ghazali.

Thursday 10 September 2015

Book Review | A Cold Silence by Alison Littlewood

Ben Cassidy has strict instructions from his mother, Cass, never to return to his childhood home of Darnshaw. But when an old friend dies, he returns to investigate a computer game she was playing named Acheron.

Acheron claims it will give you all that you ask for, something Gaila, Ben's sister, knows all too well. But there is a price, and hers is to get Ben to London.

As Ben and his friends delve ever deeper into the world of Acheron, good motivations and morality begin to slip, and they find themselves falling further into corruption. Ben and Gaila could save them all, but the price for doing so might just be too high to pay...


Hard to believe it's only been three years since A Cold Season launched Alison Littlewood into modern horror's hallowed halls, given the indelible impression she's made to date. Her debut, selected as it was for the Richard and Judy Book Club, was widely-read and basically beloved; the British Fantasy Society deemed Path of Needles one of the best novels of the year of its release; and The Unquiet House was shortlisted for a Shirley Jackson, which award Littlewood just won for her contribution to the inaugural Spectral Book of Horror Stories.

Long story short, this lady's going places. But first, because her fans demanded it, I gather, A Cold Silence ushers us back to Darnshaw—in the company of the central characters who visited that village of vacuum black and icy white in A Cold Season, even—for a deal with the devil that did next to nothing for me, I'm afraid.

A Cold Silence kicks off a decade and change later: single mother Cass may have escaped the clutches of a cult with the darkest of designs on her little boy, Ben, but the years have been anything but easy on the Cassidy family.

Friday 4 September 2015

The Scotsman Abroad | On Barker's Bite

Remember when Clive Barker mattered? 
Time was, he stood shoulder to shoulder with Stephen King and his kith and kin as one of the heavy hitters of popular horror. In the late '80s and all through the '90s, his seamless weaving of the stuff of sex together with the inevitable perversity of death led to a string of critical and commercial successes including Weaveworld, Cabal, Imagica and Everville. But over the years, the man became a brand. The macabre amalgam of visceral violence and exotic erotica that set his narratives apart from the pack at the start had, by the time of its samey culmination in Coldheart Canyon, diminished his fiction. Barker was about to lose his bite—such that it was a relief, really, when he changed gears completely.
As a long time admirer of the aforementioned author, and a die-hard fan of the Hellraiser franchise—up to and including the stupidest sequels—I had high hopes for The Scarlet Gospels, which sees Clive Barker taking ownership of the High Priest of Pain for the first time since, I think, the first of the films.

If anything, my expectations were raised when, after something like a decade on the drawing board, The Scarlet Gospels saw the light of day this past May—and what do you know? It was relatively well received. Most of the reviews I perused were good going on great, so when I finally got around to reading Barker's first proper horror novel—excepting Mister B. Gone and the Abarat books—in nearly fifteen years, I was basically beside myself with excitement.

And you know what? That first chapter? Fucking. Fantastic. Classic Clive Barker.

But from there on out, I'm afraid, The Scarlet Gospels is "business as usual, at best." And the rest of the time, "it reads like an unsightly reminder of a writer past his prime."

Strange Horizons has my full review. Please do click on through.