Friday, 17 October 2014

Book Review | The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins

The job of the skin is to keep things in…

On the buttoned-down island of Here, all is well. By which we mean: orderly, neat, contained and, moreover, beardless.

Or at least it is until one famous day, when Dave, bald but for a single hair, finds himself assailed by a terrifying, unstoppable… monster! Meaning: a gigantic, evil beard!

Where did it come from? How should the islanders deal with it? And what, most importantly, are they going to do with Dave?

Beneath the skin of everything is something nobody can know. The job of the skin is to keep it all in and never let anything show.
So begins The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil, award-winning cartoonist Stephen Collins' first graphic novel proper, and it is as dark and charming a parable as the poetry of its first panels portends.

The eventual originator of the evil beard is a drone called Dave. Not literally a drone, however his behaviours are practically mechanical. In that, Dave is not dissimilar to the other strangely hairless inhabitants of Here; like them, he lives in almost constant fear of There.

Happily, his job at A&C Industries occupies his thoughts during the day, and in his downtime, Dave draws. He draws the pedestrians that pass his house; he pencil sketches pets and post boxes; but by and large his subject is the street. "It was just so neat," you see. "So... complete."

Not such a remarkable fact, that, for "Here, every tree was perfect. Every street was perfect. Even the very shape of Here was perfect." Tellingly, the island bears a certain resemblance to an immense egg—and a delicate thing it is, protected by a shell only so strong.

It wouldn't take much to break it, basically, and the imagined mayhem of There is no more than a stone's throw from the coast:
The houses [Here] were rock-bottom cheap and showed windowless walls to the great dark deep for a very good reason. Because Here, the sea was a thing to fear. The sea led to There. There was disorder. There was chaos. There was evil.
Or so They say. Though "nobody had ever even been," really. "No one alive, anyway. The stories were enough for most people, including Dave." Like the one about the fisherman's son who stole a boat on a boast. "They said There took his tidiness away. Swallowed his boundaries whole. Mixed his [...] befores with his nows with his nexts." Thus the state of perpetual terror Dave and the other people who live Here exist in.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Book Review | TimeBomb by Scott K. Andrews

New York City, 2141: Yojana Patel throws herself off a skyscraper, but never hits the ground.

Cornwall, 1640: gentle young Dora Predennick, newly come to Sweetclover Hall to work, discovers a badly-burnt woman at the bottom of a flight of stairs. When she reaches out to comfort the dying woman, she's flung through time.

On a rainy night in present-day Cornwall: seventeen-year-old Kaz Cecka sneaks into the long-abandoned Sweetclover Hall, in search of a dry place to sleep. Instead he finds a frightened housemaid who believes Charles I is king and an angry girl who claims to come from the future.

Thrust into the centre of a war that spans millennia, Dora, Kaz and Jana must learn to harness powers they barely understand to escape not only villainous Lord Sweetclover but the forces of a fanatical army... all the while staying one step ahead of a mysterious woman known only as Quil.


Three teens from three times run rampant in 17th century Cornwall in the frenetic first volume of Scott K. Andrews' TimeBomb trilogy, a paradoxical romp which, whilst engaging and entertaining, promises a little more than it delivers.

To wit, TimeBomb begins quite brilliantly, with a fleeting glimpse of future New York: a sprawling city in which forty-storey superstructures are "dwarfed by the looming organic skytowns that twined sinuously up into the cloud base." (p.3) Here, we meet Yojana Patel, the determinedly independent daughter of... a powerful politician, I think?

We can't be certain because Andrews doesn't dally. In a matter of moments, rather than give her pursuers the satisfaction of catching her, Jana has thrown herself off the roof of a great skyscraper.

Death, in her day, is merely an inconvenience—she has a state-of-the-art board embedded in her head to that exact effect—but this particular passing doesn't happen as planned. Jana, in fact, never lands.
Instead, a second or two into her fall, she felt a tug upwards. Her first thought was that it was a freak gust of wind momentarily slowing her descent, but the tug increased. It felt as if the gravity that pulled her down was fighting an opposite force that wanted to pull her skywards. 
She opened her eyes and gasped. She was hovering in mid-air, surrounded by a halo of coruscating bright red sparks, like some kind of human firework. [...] Jana was so surprised by this that it took her a moment to realise that the world around her was darkening, as if a huge cloud was blocking out the sun. (pp.16-17)
In short, she goes into freefall—through time as opposed to space—before awakening, shaken, in the present day. Here, Jana joins forces with runaway called Kaz, who has been drawn almost inexorably towards Sweetclover Hall. As has Dora Predennick, a quiet Cornish lass from the past who, "in spite of all her natural meekness, humility and stay-at-home unadventurousness [...] was very formidable indeed when she was angry." (p.31) And having been forcibly transported over a time bridge, as she sees it, Dora's... pretty pissed.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Book Review | The End of the Sentence by Maria Dahvana Headley & Kat Howard

It begins with a letter from a prisoner...

As he attempts to rebuild his life in rural Oregon after a tragic accident, Malcolm Mays finds himself corresponding with Dusha Chuchonnyhoof, a mysterious entity who claims to be the owner of Malcolm's house, jailed unjustly for 117 years. The prisoner demands that Malcolm perform a gory, bewildering task for him. As the clock ticks toward Dusha's release, Malcolm must attempt to find out whether he's assisting a murderer or an innocent. The End of the Sentence combines Kalapuya, Welsh, Scottish and Norse mythology, with a dark imagined history of the hidden corners of the American West.

Maria Dahvana Headley and Kat Howard have forged a fairytale of ghosts and guilt, literary horror blended with the visuals of Jean Cocteau, failed executions, shapeshifting goblins, and magical blacksmithery. In Chuchonnyhoof, they've created a new kind of Beast, longing, centuries later, for Beauty.


In the aftermath of a tragic accident that made a mess of his marriage, Malcolm Mays retreats to rural Oregon in an attempt to begin again, however he gets more than he bargained for when he moves into a foreclosed home in Ione.

In a sense he inherits its former occupant, a convicted criminal called Dusha Chuchonnyhoof who—having been unjustly jailed for two lifetimes and a day, he says—is preparing to reclaim his property. "The homeowner is only absent, you must understand. Not gone. The end of the sentence approaches [...] and when it comes, I will return." (p.15)

This much Malcolm is made aware of—this much and no more, for the moment—through the letters that mysteriously appear in and around the house. Letters sent, evidently, from the nearby penitentiary, bidding him welcome... but how can that be when he hasn't announced his presence to anyone? Other letters are delivered later: missives urging our man to prepare the place for Chuchonnyhoof's homecoming... despite the fact that the felon in question has been dead for half a century.

Malcolm has no intention of doing what the letters advise, but, as if sensing his resistance, Chuchonnyhoof—or else the degenerate purporting to be Chuchonnyhoof—promises to make it worth his while. How? By bringing his lost boy back from the beyond. "If you do as I tell you to do, he will return when I do. If you do not," warns one of the murderer's many messages, "he will remain where you left him." (p.38)

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Book Review | Bête by Adam Roberts

It began when animal rights activists inserted AI chips in the brains of animals. The plan was to give animals speech. After all, if animals can talk we are bound to treat them more like us. A creature that can argue the case for its own intelligence, its own rights, is a much harder creature to use, to kill, surely.

But where does artificial intelligence end and the animal begin? With speech and self-awareness, have these canny animals also gained souls? Would we choose to believe them if they told us they had?

And would they forgive us?


Reading Adam Roberts is like participating in a literary lucky dip. It's a bit of a gamble, granted, but every one's a winner, and all of the prizes on offer are awesome.

Different sorts of awesome, I dare say. Always smart, and ever so sharp, but sometimes you get something scathing, and sometimes something sweet. Sometimes his stories are obscenely serious; sometimes they're ridiculously silly. Bête represents the best of both worlds—the coming together of all the aspects of Adam Roberts: the author, the professor and the satirist, alongside a number of others.

His fifteenth full-length fiction in fifteen years—including neither his punsome parodies nor his several collections—is a book about the rise of animals with intelligence to match man's, and it begins with a cutting conversation between a cattle farmer and the cow he had thought to slaughter.

"Won't you at least Turing-test me?" (p.11) it pleads as the bolt-gun is pressed against its head. One imagines many would, in that moment—indeed, making this beast into meat will be a matter of murder within weeks—but Graham Penhaligon is... somewhat set in his ways, shall we say. Also: a bit of a bastard. He pulls the trigger, a few pages later, in part because the cow—a farm animal made canny by activists with access to AI augmentations—makes the mistake of quoting a Morrissey song.
You dislike me for killing it. You're no vegetarian, though, hypocrite, reader, my image. My friend. You don't object to the killing as such. You object to my manner. When hunter-gatherers get angry it is hot and swift. When farmers get angry it is bone-deep and slow. (p.16)
And Graham, I'm afraid, has "spent decades perfecting anger as [his] being-in-the-world" (p.105)—so sayeth Cincinnatus the cat, a bête beloved by the cancer-ridden character our former farmer falls for in the novel's next section, which takes place fully five years after its provocative prologue. Brief and bleak as Graham's relationship with Anne is, it goes a long way toward humanising Roberts' immediately unappealing lead: a miserable man, as mean as he is maudlin, however he does, as it happens, have a heart.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Book Review | Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Darcy Patel has put college on hold to publish her teen novel, Afterworlds. With a contract in hand, she arrives in New York City with no apartment, no friends, and all the wrong clothes. But lucky for Darcy, she’s taken under the wings of other seasoned and fledgling writers who help her navigate the city and the world of writing and publishing. Over the course of a year, Darcy finishes her book, faces critique, and falls in love.

Woven into Darcy’s personal story is her novel, Afterworlds, a suspenseful thriller about a teen who slips into the “Afterworld” to survive a terrorist attack. The Afterworld is a place between the living and the dead, and where many unsolved—and terrifying—stories need to be reconciled. Like Darcy, Lizzie too falls in love... until a new threat resurfaces, and her special gifts may not be enough to protect those she cares about most.


As someone somewhen almost certainly said, the story is the thing... and it is, isn't it? Most readers read in order to know what happens next—to these characters or that narrative—rather than out of interest in much of anything outwith a given fiction; assuredly not the particular process of authors, though after Afterworlds, I've begun to wonder whether we mightn't be missing a trick.

A twofold story about storytelling, Scott Westerfeld's insightful new novel alternates between a pair of coming of age tales. In one, we meet Lizzie: a typical teenager, to begin with, who's too busy texting to notice the start of a terrorist attack:
I'd never heard an automatic weapon in real life before. It was somehow too loud for my ears to register, not so much a sound as the air ripping around me, a shudder I could feel in my bones and in the liquid of my eyes. I looked up from my phone and stared. 
The gunmen didn't look human. They wore horror movie masks, and smoke flowed around them as they swung their aim across the crowd. [...] I didn't hear the screams until the terrorists paused to reload. (pp.5-6)
Luckily, Lizzie comes to her senses eventually. As quietly as she can, she calls 911 as the bullets fly by. The operator on the other end of the telephone tells Lizzie her best bet is to play dead, and in lieu of a safer location, she does exactly that.

A touch too well, in truth, because she faints, and awakens in another world. There, in the land of the no longer living—a grayscale place where "the air [tastes] flat and metallic" (p.20)—she promptly falls for a foxy psychopomp:
These terrorists had tried to kill me but I'd gone to the land of the dead and now could see ghosts and apparently had acquired dangerous new powers and this boy, this boy had touched my fingertips—and they still tingled. (p.76)
In the aftermath of the attack, it beggars belief, a bit, that this boy is Lizzie's priority. Not the loss of so much life. Not her own nearness to nothing. Not even the realisation that she can move between worlds at will. Rather, Yamaraj, "a hot Vedic death god" (p.77) "modeled [...] on a Bollywood star" (p.121) by his faithless creator, debutant Darcy Patel.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Book Review | The Relic Guild by Edward Cox

It was said the Labyrinth had once been the great meeting place, a sprawling city at the heart of an endless maze where a million humans hosted the Houses of the Aelfir. The Aelfir who had brought trade and riches, and a future full of promise. But when the Thaumaturgists, overlords of human and Aelfir alike, went to war, everything was ruined and the Labyrinth became an abandoned forbidden zone, where humans were trapped behind boundary walls 100 feet high.

Now the Aelfir are a distant memory and the Thaumaturgists have faded into myth. Young Clara struggles to survive in a dangerous and dysfunctional city, where eyes are keen, nights are long, and the use of magic is punishable by death. She hides in the shadows, fearful that someone will discover she is touched by magic. She knows her days are numbered. But when a strange man named Fabian Moor returns to the Labyrinth, Clara learns that magic serves a higher purpose and that some myths are much more deadly in the flesh.

The only people Clara can trust are the Relic Guild, a secret band of magickers sworn to protect the Labyrinth. But the Relic Guild are now too few. To truly defeat their old nemesis Moor, mightier help will be required. To save the Labyrinth—and the lives of one million humans—Clara and the Relic Guild must find a way to contact the worlds beyond their walls.


The end result of more than a decade of obsessive endeavour, The Relic Guild by Edward Cox is the first part of a fine fantasy saga mixing gods and monsters that promises a lot, but delivers on too little to linger long after its last page.

Be that as it may, it's engrossing in the early-going, as the author thrusts us into the midst of a magical battle between Marney, an out-of-practice empath; a goodly number of golems in service of someone called Fabian Moor: an evil Genii determined to bring his banished master back from the blackest corners of beyond; and Old Man Sam, a bounty hunter unburdened by the little things in life, like what's right.

The good, the bad and the ugly are all searching for the same thing, in this instance: a girl called Peppercorn Clara. "Barely eighteen, she was a whore rumoured to have a libido as spicy as it was insatiable. The story was that [she] had killed a client halfway through a job." (p.7) Needless to say, this is a fabrication. Clara's only crime is that she's different from most of the million mere mortals who live in Labrys Town, being the first magical being born within its walls in a generation.