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.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Book Review | The Death House by Sarah Pinborough


Toby's life was perfectly normal... until it was unravelled by something as simple as a blood test.

Taken from his family, Toby now lives in the Death House; an out-of-time existence far from the modern world, where he, and the others who live there, are studied by Matron and her team of nurses. They're looking for any sign of sickness. Any sign of their wards changing. Any sign that it's time to take them to the sanatorium.

And no one returns from the sanatorium.

Withdrawn from his house-mates and living in his memories of the past, Toby spends his days fighting his fear. But then a new arrival in the house shatters the fragile peace, and everything changes.

Because everybody dies. It's how you choose to live that counts.

***

A slim, sorrowful volume that splits the difference between The Fault in Our Stars and The Girl with All the Gifts, The Death House documents the last days of several students in a school full of Defectives: young people who have been taken from their parents and installed in an isolated location because of something bad in their blood. Something that'll kill them all before long.
It's school but not school. Like this whole place is life but not life. At least the teachers, who disappear off to their own wing once lessons are done, will get out of here. Sometimes I'll catch one watching us as we work as if we're animals in a zoo. I can never decide quite what the look is. Fascination or fear, or maybe a bit of both.
Maybe a bit of both is appropriate...

On the back of The Language of Dying, a life-affirming dark fantasy about the passing of a man with lung cancer, Sarah Pinborough opts not to detail the Defective gene here. That isn't to say there aren't certain suggestions—implications that when the time comes, the kids in question will turn into monsters of a sort; monsters some of them have seen in the movies the school screens each week. To wit, we can guess what happens next. We can guess that death is essentially a blessing on the affected.

The kids struggle to see it that way, because of course they do—they're kids. Boys and girls from eight to eighteen bundled into black vans and largely left to their own devices on an island where they make friends and enemies, fight and make light; where they do whatever they can do, in truth, to avoid facing the fate that awaits them.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Book Review | Something Coming Through by Paul McAuley


The Jackaroo have given humanity 15 worlds and the means to reach them. They're a chance to start over, but they're also littered with ruins and artifacts left by the Jackaroo's previous clients. Miracles that could reverse the damage caused by war, climate change, and rising sea levels. Nightmares that could forever alter humanity—or even destroy it.

Chloe Millar works in London, mapping changes caused by imported scraps of alien technology. When she stumbles across a pair of orphaned kids possessed by an ancient ghost, she must decide whether to help them or to hand them over to the authorities. Authorities who believe that their visions point towards a new kind of danger.

And on one of the Jackaroo's gift-worlds, the murder of a man who has just arrived from Earth leads policeman Vic Gayle to a war between rival gangs over possession of a remote excavation site.

Something is coming through. Something linked to the visions of Chloe's orphans, and Vic Gayle's murder investigation. Something that will challenge the limits of the Jackaroo's benevolence...

***

Spinning off a series of experimental short stories, Something Coming Through marks the actual factual start of what's been called "an extraordinary new project" by Paul McAuley, the award-winning author of The Quiet War novels. As a beginning, it's inordinately promising, largely because the world is so wide and relevant and well-developed, and though the characters are a little lacking, Something Coming Through satisfies as a standalone story too.

Allow me to introduce you to the Jackaroo, an advanced race of aliens whose near-as-dammit divine intervention in human history may well have saved us—from ourselves:
Just before the Jackaroo had made contact [...] every country in the world had been caught up in riots, revolutions and counter-revolutions, civil wars, border wars, water wars, net wars, and plain old-fashioned conflicts, mixed up with climate change and various degrees of financial collapse. All this craziness culminating in a limited nuclear missile exchange and a string of low-yield tactical nukes exploding in capital cities. The Spasm.
The Spasm has a special place in Chloe Millar's heart:
The Trafalgar Square bomb had [...] obliterated a square kilometre of central London, igniting enormous fires and injuring over ten thousand people and killing four thousand. Including Chloe's mother, who had been working at the archives of the National Portrait Gallery—research for a book on Victorian photography—and had vanished in an instant of light brighter and hotter than the surface of the sun. 
Chloe had been twelve when the bomb had exploded her world, had just turned thirteen when the Jackaroo revealed themselves and told everyone in the world that they wanted to help.
The aliens arrived in the nick of time, natch, and their assistance really did make a difference. There are still tensions, yes, and crimes continue to be committed—more on those in a moment—but given free reign over fifteen so-called "gift-worlds" and the technology to travel to them, albeit under strict supervision, people have room to breathe again; space to expand independently; and time to consider a lot of things—not least the lilies.

But why did the Jackaroo come to Earth in the first? What intergalactic game are they playing, and what cost their kindness?

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Book Review | The Chimes by Anna Smaill


A boy stands on the roadside on his way to London, alone in the rain. No memories, beyond what he can hold in his hands at any given moment. No directions, as written words have long since been forbidden. No parents—just a melody that tugs at him, a thread to follow. A song that says if he can just get to the capital, he may find some answers about what happened to them.

The world around Simon sings, each movement a pulse of rhythm, each object weaving its own melody, music ringing in every drop of air.

Welcome to the world of The Chimes. Here, life is orchestrated by a vast musical instrument that renders people unable to form new memories. The past is a mystery, each new day feels the same as the last, and before is blasphony.

But slowly, inexplicably, Simon is beginning to remember. He emerges from sleep each morning with a pricking feeling, and sense there is something he urgently has to do. In the city Simon meets Lucien, who has a gift for hearing, some secrets of his own, and a theory about the danger lurking in Simon's past.

***

London comes alive like never before in Anna Smaill's deeply unique debut: a dystopian love story about a boy who comes to the capital on a quest to find out what happened to his late parents, and why. Along the way unspeakable secrets will be revealed about a world in which "words are not to be trusted" (p.30) and memories are temporary—the unintended consequences of a musical final solution:
At the height of dischord, at Allbreaking, sound became a weapon. In the city, glass shivered out of context, fractured white and peeled away from windows. The buildings rumbled and fell. The mettle was bent and twisted out of tune. The water in the river stood in a single wave that never toppled. What happened to the people? The people were blinded and deafened. The people died. The bridge between Bankside and Paul's shook and stirred, or so they say. The people ran but never fast enough. After Allbreaking, only the pure of heart and hearing were left. They dwelled in the cities. They waited for order; they waited for a new harmony. (p.30)
It never arrived. But now, if you listen closely, you can hear the strains of a beautiful new movement beginning...

Though he doesn't consider himself such, Simon Wythern is one of the lucky ones. Same as any other person, he forgets everything that's happened to him during the day over the course of Chimes each night, yet our orphan is able to impress his most exceptional experiences into objects, and carry them with him in this way. He keeps his objectmemories close, of course, and allows himself to indulge in one each evening:
In the depths of the roughcloth, none of the shapes has any meaning. They're just things I reach for like a strandpicker in thamesmuck. When my hands takes hold of the right one, a picture will flash up true as a bright note, clear as an unmudded stream. I don't know how it works. Maybe the object comes first; then the memory follows. Or maybe I choose the memory and my hand finds the right object to match. I do one each night only. And I can't take it with me into the morning. (p.51)

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Guest Post | "Coming to the End of a Trilogy" by Gareth L. Powell

You know how in horror movies you can sometimes summon the monster by simply saying his name? That’s how it happened for me.


When Solaris Books published my fifth novel Macaque Attack in January 2015, it marked the end of a bizarre and unexpected journey—a journey that began some time in 2006, when the words ‘Ack-Ack’ and ‘Macaque’ started rattling around in my head, and I scribbled them into my notebook. I didn’t look in a mirror and say ‘Candyman’ three times; I simply wrote down two words. ‘Ack-ack’ is wartime British slang for antiaircraft fire, and a ‘macaque’ is a type of monkey.

Ack-Ack Macaque.

It sounded like a name. There was something about the rhythm of the syllables. I wrote it down and said it aloud and, hey presto, there he was. He sauntered into my brain fully formed: a bad-tempered, cigar-chewing monkey pilot with an eye-patch and a pair of shiny Colts. He was part Lee Marvin, part Biggles, and part John Belushi in 1941—a cynical badass stick-jockey with an eye patch and a cigar.

At the time, I needed a fictional anime character for a short story I wanted to write. I wanted to say something about the commodification of culture, especially in movie adaptations of books and comics, and so I needed a cartoon character with rough edges. I put Ack-Ack into the story and he took it over. I even ended up naming the story after him.

‘Ack-Ack Macaque’ became my second short story sale to Interzone, the long-running British SF&F magazine. It appeared in issue #212 in September 2007, and Warren Ellis memorably described it as “the commercialisation of a web animation into some diseased Max Headroom as metaphor for the wreckage of a fucked-up relationship.” The story garnered some good reviews and went on to be voted the year’s favourite short story in the annual Interzone reader’s poll.

That’s where it should have ended; but monsters, once summoned, can be hard to dismiss.

In 2012, I set out to write a murder mystery set on a giant Zeppelin. I wanted to explore different notions of what it means to be human, so the characters included a woman who had half her brain rebuilt with artificial processors following an accident; the self-aware recording of her dead husband; and a man who finds out he’s a clone. They had all considered themselves human in the past, but now weren’t so sure. All I lacked was the viewpoint of a character that had never been human at all, but had been ‘uplifted’ to consciousness.

Ack-Ack was waiting for me, smoking a cigar in the dark recesses of my imagination.

“About time, too,” he said.

The novel, Ack-Ack Macaque, appeared from Solaris Books in January 2013 and went on to co-win (alongside Ann Leckie’s all-conquering Ancillary Justice) the BSFA Award for Best Novel.


Writing the main characters—who are all outsiders, alienated from the rest of humanity by the surgery that’s made them different—was a fascinating and challenging experience. To convincingly portray them as individuals, I had to try to put myself in their position. I had to imagine what it would be like to be a creature with the mind of a man and all the attitude and bad habits of a monkey, or a former journalist whose thoughts now ran on mostly artificial neurons. Luckily, I guess we all know what it feels like to be an outsider. We’ve all been in situations where everybody else seems to know what’s going on, and we’re left floundering; where something about us—our clothes, the music we like, our sexuality—sets us apart from the crowd; and I was able to draw on those feelings of insecurity and self-consciousness to bring the characters’ inner thoughts to life.

Meanwhile, Ack-Ack had been busily spilling out into other media.

To help launch the book, a five-page Ack-Ack Macaque prequel strip appeared in the December 2012 issue of the legendary British comic 2000 AD. I also set up a Twitter feed in the monkey’s name, and he started interacting with his readers, quickly gathering an army of loyal followers who bombarded him with funny monkey pictures, banana jokes, and marriage proposals!

The sequel, Hive Monkey, appeared in January 2014. At the time, it was the first novel-length sequel I’d attempted, and to start with, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to pull it off. What if it wasn’t as good as the first one? I needn’t have worried. Climbing back about the skyliner Tereshkova felt like coming home. I’m extremely fond of all the main characters, especially Ack-Ack and Victoria Valois, and found it immense fun to hang out with them a second time, even as I broadened the alternate universe setting to ask new questions about the nature of humanity and what it is that makes us unique.

Hive Monkey was my first sequel, and Macaque Attack marked the completion of my first trilogy.

Or did it?

I won’t say how or why, but Macaque Attack features appearances by characters from my 2011 Solaris novel, The Recollection [reviewed right here on TSS—Ed] which means this ‘trilogy’ is actually more of a ‘quartet,’ and the monkey’s adventures have been playing out against a background far more epic than he could possibly have suspected.


As well as examining questions about the nature of memory and what it means to be human, these four books also concern themselves with notions of friendship, family and belonging. Ack-Ack Macaque starts out alone and gradually accretes a kind of ersatz family group or, as he thinks of it, a troop. The cynical, embittered veteran finds himself beginning to care about those around him. He takes on adult responsibilities and, as a consequence, he grows up. At the end of book three, he is wiser and more human than he was at the opening of book one.

As, I hope, am I.

Writing these books has been a hell of a lot of fun, and I’ve learned a lot from the process. I’ve had a blast, but all good things must eventually come to an end. I’ve said what I wanted to say, and now it’s time to say goodbye. I will miss Ack-Ack and Victoria terribly, but their stories have been told and I know it’s now time to move on to other projects.

Ack-Ack Macaque may have left the building, but, if the stars align just right and the wind’s blowing in a favorable direction, then one day it’s just possible he might come back.

Maybe.

Until then, there’s Macaque Attack—his biggest, craziest adventure yet. As Ack-Ack himself might say:


“Buckle up, sweethearts. It’s going to be a hell of a ride.”

***

Gareth L. Powell is an award-winning science fiction and fantasy author from Bristol whose books have been published in the UK, the USA, Germany and Japan. You can find him online at www.garethlpowell.com, and follow him on Twitter at @garethlpowell. Should you be brave enough, the aforementioned monkey tweets too, as @AckAckMacaque.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Book Review | The Visitors by Simon Sylvester


Nobody moves to the remote Scottish island of Bancree, and few leave—but leaving is exactly what seventeen-year-old Flora intends to do. So when a mysterious man and his daughter move into isolated Dog Cottage, Flo is curious. What could have brought these strangers to the island? The man is seductively handsome but radiates menace; and there's something about his daughter Ailsa that Flo can't help but feel drawn towards.

People aren't only arriving on Bancree—they are disappearing too. Reports of missing islanders fill the press and unnerve the community. When a body washes ashore, suspicion turns to the strange newcomers on Dog Rock.

Convinced of their innocence, Flo is fiercely determined to protect her friend Ailsa. Could the answer to the disappearances, and to the pull of her own heart, lie out there, beyond the waves?

***

A contemporary twist on an old fisherman's myth complete with an immensely atmospheric setting, a strong yet sympathetic central character and a missing persons mystery that'll keep you guessing till all is said and done—and then some—The Visitors by Simon Sylvester has everything including the girl going for it.

For all it has to offer, Bancree has seen better days. As a remote island off the coast of Scotland—bleakly beautiful, to be sure, but truly brutal too—it and its inhabitants have been hit hard by the economy's catastrophic collapse. "There was nothing on the island that wasn't already dying. Half the houses were for sale. The island population numbered only a few hundred, and that dripped away, year on year." (p.5)

Little wonder, as the only booming business on Bancree is whisky, and Lachlan Crane, the son set to inherit the local distillery, is at best "a bully and a womaniser," (p.36) and at worst? Well. Time will tell. For him and for Flo.

Said seventeen-year-old has no intention of taking a job at the Clachnabhan factory when she finishes her final year. She'll be leaving home just as soon as is humanly—like her former boyfriend, who beats her to it at very the beginning of The Visitors. A whipsmart character from the first, Flo knows that Richard isn't the love of her life; still, she feels defeated when he makes a break for the mainland:
Going out with him was an escape—my route to freedom, a cord that connected me to the world outside. Richard had cut that cord, and I felt robbed and hollow, the cavern of my stomach writhing with tiny, wormy things. Frustration, envy, sadness. It should have me who'd escaped into a new life, drinking in bars and meeting new people. It should have been me doing the breaking up. The dumping. (p.83)
One way or the other, the deed is done, and for a moment, Flo is alone; as alone as she's ever been, at least. Then she makes a friend.